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Trump's Agriculture Secretary Tells Dairyland It's Doomed
While dairy farms keep closing at an accelerating pace, Sonny Perdue came to Wisconsin and essentially told farmers the era of the family farm is over.
The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Secretary Sonny Perdue told Wisconsin farmers “the big get bigger and the small go out.” Pictured at the United States Department of Agriculture on Thursday, September 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Tom Witham.
America’s Dairyland is in a crisis. Wisconsin’s legacy industry has taken a nosedive, with about two dairy farms closing every day across the state.
The number of farms across the state has been decreasing for some time, but the pace of these closures is accelerating. Wisconsin has lost more than 550 dairy farms already in 2019, up from a total of 465 in all of 2017. Since 2014, more than a quarter of the state’s dairy farms have closed. Some farms that have been around for more than a century are now shutting down for good.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has covered this extensively in its “Dairyland in Distress” series -- Rick Barrett, the reporter leading the coverage, was a minor celebrity at last month’s Farm Aid -- and the paper’s in-depth looks at what’s been happening to the industry have been a big part of understanding the scope and depth of this crisis. It’s harrowing to see what’s happening to such a proud industry that’s been an integral part of Wisconsin’s history making this state what it is.
And this week, a flashbulb moment happened in the unfolding story of dairy farming in Wisconsin. Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, came to the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin and told dairy farmers that they might not survive.
“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.”
Coming into Wisconsin and telling farmers that they’re going to be going out of business at the height of this crisis is shameful. These are people who are struggling mightily, and to walk into their state and essentially tell them that the era of the family farm in Wisconsin is over is brazenly insulting.
Trump and his administration have repeatedly said the quiet part loud, and while that’s often come in the case of bullhorn-volume racism or openly admitting to corrupt practices, it apparently extends to things like agricultural policy, too. The president and his Republican Party are often accused of protecting the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of the working class and those experiencing poverty, and here, one of Trump’s longest-serving Cabinet members just came out and said that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer and the president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said, “We need to look at something that will benefit all of rural America, not just corporate rural America. Secretary Perdue is supposed to represent all U.S. farmers, but I don’t think we saw that here today.”
Jim Goodman, board president of the National Family Farm Coalition, responded to Perdue’s comments by saying, “Five years of plunging farm prices, increasing bankruptcies, and climbing suicide rates were not discussed by Perdue. His message to them was basically, stop whining, your demise is inevitable."
Let’s not forget that this crisis is in no small part the result of the trade policy of the Trump administration. As the Associated Press reported, “According to a September analysis by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, U.S. dairy solids exports to China fell by 43 percent overall in the 11 months starting in July 2018, when China enacted the first round of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. dairy products.”
This crisis they helped create is now one they’re also clumsily trying to clean up. The federal government has spent $28 billion in an attempt to bail out the American farm industry. As Bloomberg Businessweek notes, that’s more than twice as expensive as the 2009 auto bailout. That helped save an industry; this is something else entirely. Cutting off a major export partner and offering handouts in return is not a long-term solution.
Perdue, too, is creating his own problems along the way in his handling of this crisis.
As the U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Governor of Georgia has been dispatched to rural areas to “calm the nerves of farmers,” he recently mocked farmers as “whiners” at Minnesota Farmfest before making his comments in Wisconsin. Also this summer, he downplayed climate change as simply “weather patterns” while farmers have struggled with extreme flooding in the Midwest, and has tried to bury research on the damaging effects of climate change on farming. U.S. cattle workers in Omaha, Nebraska, are now cheering calls for Perdue’s firing.
These policies and the people implementing them are failing at their goals, and it’s hitting the rural economy hard.
“The impact of the loss of farms and that revenue in our rural areas is reaching our Main Streets, where we’re losing banks, post offices, and even grocery stores,” said Von Ruden. “This farm crisis will leave a lasting impact on far more than the farmers who become a part of growing farm loss statistics each year.”
What Perdue said this week to Wisconsin dairy farmers is not going to be forgotten any time soon. When the story of what happens to the small family farm in the Upper Midwest is eventually told, this will stand out as a moment of significance, one that revealed who this disastrous administration is looking out for and who it doesn’t care to see tossed to the side. Hopefully, what comes next will tell a better, more hopeful chapter in this unfolding tale in Dairyland.
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Follow Dan on Twitter at @DanRShafer.