Ag secretary: No guarantee small dairy farms will survive

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue addresses questions from members of the media following a town hall meeting at the World Dairy Expo in Madison on Tuesday.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue discovered during his trip to the dairy state Tuesday that many people don’t like having the obvious pointed out to them, especially by a member of the Trump administration.

“He kind of put the pox on small farming in the state, small dairy farming in particular,” Gov. Tony Evers complained to reporters about Perdue’s remarks at the World Dairy Expo in Madison.

Jim Goodman, board president of the National Family Farm Coalition, vented, too. “Small farmers were, again, surprised by Agriculture Secretary Perdue’s callousness when he casually told them that small farms would probably not survive,” he told the liberal online publication Common Dreams.

An irony of Perdue’s “callousness” is that he said nothing farmers don’t already know. “In America, the big get bigger, and the small go out,” Perdue said at the expo. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

He added: “It’s very difficult on an economy of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, or 60 or even 100 cows.”

The truth is, many farmers are innovating and upgrading their dairy operations so they don’t become casualties of market forces. Those who failed to adjust have gone out of business, an unfortunate trend reflected in the surge of farm bankruptcies over the past few years.

If Perdue misled anybody about the state of farming, it was in his positive characterization of the Trump administration tariffs. He might feel he has no choice but to back his boss, but tariffs aren’t good for farmers or the U.S. economy.

China perhaps represents U.S. farmers’ best hope for increasing demand for dairy products, but President Trump’s combative negotiating tactics have put U.S. farmers in the crossfire of a trade war, creating a void for farmers from other nations, such as Brazil, to fill.

Trump also made a critical mistake by pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which would have removed trade barriers among the 12 participating nations. Notably, the deal would have excluded China and likely given the U.S. more leverage in negotiating with Chinese officials.

So much for the art of the deal.

But trade policy aside, nothing can stop the market forces reshaping Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape. Farmers have been coping with technological disruptions since agriculture itself emerged in about 10,000 B.C. New technologies will continue to push farms toward more mechanization and consolidation.

The small farm culture that many people associate with Wisconsin is dying, and no amount of government intervention can turn back the clock to a more romantic era.

But to the extent the federal and state governments can assist farmers to make the transition to large-scale farming, they should. At the least, federal officials can provide immediate help by getting rid of wrong-headed tariffs that are crippling farmers.

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