Editor’s note: The following editorial originated with a sister newspaper, The Mankato (Minn.) Free Press.
Farmers know a lot more about “bootstrapping” than most of us. We have all benefitted from farmers’ know-how and can-do attitudes. We have developed a food supply better and more affordable than ever before.
So it was a little troubling that Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told a group of dairy farmers at a meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, that he didn’t know if small dairy farmers could survive. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue told reporters matter-of-factly after attending an event at the World Dairy Expo.
Many may appreciate Perdue’s candor about how he sees the modern American “free” market. His tone deafness is less laudable.
“What I heard today from the secretary of agriculture is there’s no place for me,” said fifth-generation farmer Jerry Volenec, who was quoted by The Associated Press. “Can I get some support from my state and federal government? I feel like we’re a benefit to society.”
Food is cheap due to the economics of farming. But through history millions of farmers across America created a market with many “sellers” from which consumers could choose. They produced crops with the risk that they face below break-even prices should the weather or the market, or both, not cooperate.
At one time, small farms were the backbone of American agriculture. Farmers and their families worked long days, without the guaranteed pay of a factory worker. They took risks with their savings. They battled not only Mother Nature, but Father Time and yes, at times, the government.
That is the case now. Dairy farmers have been pummeled by Trump’s trade war with China. Since China imposed retaliatory tariffs on dairy products, exports of dairy solids fell by 43 percent, according to the U.S. Export Dairy Council.
The group’s analysis found that cut demand for 3.7 billion pounds of farmers’ milk.
Wisconsin lost 551 dairy farmers in 2019 so far, after losing 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
As the number of suppliers shrink, food prices will be more and more controlled by fewer players, who will have more power to raise prices in a market being monopolized by the biggest.
Small farmers fed the world. Now, we’re eating their lunch, because, according to Perdue, that’s the way it is in America.