My visit to the World Dairy Expo a couple of weeks ago was my first return in several years. With stalls of companies selling everything from sophisticated feeding rations to bigger, more complex and vastly more expensive equipment than the last time I was there, the growth of the very industrial portion of the state’s dairy industry seemed evident.
But I was pulled back into the past by comments from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that morning in a town hall meeting at the Expo. Perdue responded to a question about Wisconsin’s loss of dairy farmers by acknowledging our farmers’ challenges, but hastily disentangled himself and the USDA from any culpability by describing a sort of economic determinism in farming.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
For many who heard or read his message, it was painfully reminiscent of Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture in the early 1970s under Presidents Nixon and Ford, who famously told farmers that they needed to “get big or get out.”
Part of what made Butz’s comments particularly cynical is that, while he implied that market forces were inevitably driving growth in farm sizes, in fact, it was policies that drove agricultural concentration. The nation was seeking to meet global demand for grain, and farmers were being advised to “plant fencerow to fencerow” to meet it. Tax benefits for capital investments in bigger equipment, government payments for growing commodity crops, loans targeted to such commodity payments, crop insurance and many other policies encouraged farmers to add acreage and get bigger. But when the myth of endless markets ended, farmers faced an oversupply of grain, and many lost their farms — the smaller farms going first.
It’s similarly hard to swallow economic determinism from this USDA secretary. Never mind that the USDA’s commodity, crop insurance, loan, conservation, and research policies have been favoring larger farmers over small ones for decades. Never mind that this administration is actively undercutting agricultural innovation by decimating the research apparatus that supports new strategies and new enterprises.
I was happy that Wisconsin’s Agriculture Secretary-designee, Brad Pfaff, responded to Secretary Perdue, politely saying that “Wisconsin’s diversity in farm size and scale benefits our state, both economically and socially.”
Pfaff described a variety of ways that farms can succeed — by implementing value-added strategies, managed grazing, direct sales to consumers and many other strategies.
"The survival of the agricultural community depends on strong connections and innovation that is tailored to each business — not universal expansion," Pfaff said.
Wisconsin’s legislative leaders should reinforce Pfaff’s strategies for farm resilience. The department has been cut budgetarily for nearly three decades, with the last administration cutting the already lean agency by 10% each year.
It’s time to properly re-staff and properly fund the agency that oversees food safety, water quality, agricultural innovation, and thus, rural community well-being. Certainly, we don’t need to stimulate our milk supply. We should stop advantaging larger farms through our state’s livestock siting law, and the Legislature should fund conservation and fund programs that support farm innovation — and, did I mention that Mr. Pfaff is still the designee? — confirm the secretary already.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
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