MADISON — When Brody Stapel, president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, spoke with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the opening morning of World Dairy Expo last week, he said Perdue had “his game face on” and was ready to answer tough questions posed by those in the audience at an Oct. 1 town hall panel.

What Perdue may not have been ready to do is answer tough questions posed by reporters at the conclusion of the town hall, where he made eyebrow-raising comments about the survival of small farms, particularly small dairy farms, at an event known to be the global meeting place for the dairy industry.

Perdue told a dozen or so reporters gathered in a cramped hallway in the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall that he doesn’t know if small family dairy farms can survive as the dairy industry continues to evolve.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” he said before touring the trade show at World Dairy Expo and heading to a Verona elementary school for another engagement later that morning in which he highlighted and celebrated Farm to School Month.

His comments came after he fielded questions from attendees on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards, alfalfa hay imports, cheese barrel and block pricing, prevent plant acreage, lab-grown meat, the idea of supply management and trade, asking many of those who posed questions to leave documentation with his staff so he could look into those issues further.

“I came to listen more than to talk,” he said, staying seated amongst the panel, which included Brad Pfaff, secretary-designee for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and Stapel of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative.

Stapel was the first to pose a question to Perdue at the town hall, asking him what advice he has for farmers who want to tell their stories in a way that resonates with the public and government officials.

Although it’s not traditionally in the nature of a farmer to tell their story, Perdue encouraged farmers in attendance to take advantage of a growing movement where consumers want to know what’s in their milk, how a certain crop was grown or how the animals are treated on an operation.

“Farmers have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “It’s up to every one of us to speak out locally, statewide and nationally to tell the story of what’s happening. No longer can we hide behind the curtain and tell them it’s none of their business.”

Pfaff said it’s the No. 1 issue he’s focusing on at Wisconsin DATCP, connecting consumers to farmers and farmers to consumers.

Later in the town hall, questions turned to the topics of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, also known as USMCA, and trade in general, along with what can be done to help farmers in the future as they recover from this latest round of economic downturn within the dairy industry.

“Trade is obviously the No. 1 issue I hear around the country,” Perdue said. “I like to put it into perspective — isn’t it wonderful to be in a country so blessed that we have to depend on foreign markets because of our productivity rather than becoming food dependent like we were on oil at one point.”

Perdue also said he thinks USMCA will be passed by the legislature this year, alluding to “some distractions” in Washington, D.C., recently that may detour the timeliness of its passing.

He added that he believes the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was a good agreement; however, the new USMCA is “a more modern agreement” that Perdue predicts will be good for dairy, poultry, eggs and wheat, among other industries.

He and the administration are also developing and eyeing new markets in India, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, with Perdue adding that Wisconsin is already exploring new markets for their dairy and agricultural products. Wisconsin dairy products found homes in 147 different countries across the world in 2018, Pfaff said.

“I’d love the day when we don’t have to become dependent upon China like we had worked ourself into a dependence on the China market,” Perdue said.

Perdue also endorsed the 2018 Farm Bill, stating he thinks it’s better for dairy farmers than the 2014 Farm Bill and will help keep them afloat during tough economic times. He likes the Dairy Margin Coverage Program that was incorporated into the bill and doesn’t see why dairy farmers would choose to not sign up for it.

“Frankly (though), farmers would rather have a good crop or a good milk poundage at a fair price than a government check any day,” he said.

Milk prices appear to be moving forward, with Perdue predicting they will improve in 2020.

“I know as a young dairyman in Wisconsin, I’m very encouraged and was very encouraged from the day Mr. Perdue was nominated as secretary (and) as a farmer,” Stapel said at the conclusion of the town hall. “We needed a good old boy...and you know he’s genuine.

“I’m encouraged as a young farmer early in my career to be looking forward to those long term successes in trade and other things that we can do.”