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.”
The U.S. organic industry broke $50 billion in sales last year — and according to Mark Kastel, arguably one of the most experienced fraud investigators in organics, it doesn’t take long for money to corrupt an entire industry.
“Cheating is possible,” Kastel said. “And it’s becoming a growing problem in the organic industry.”
Farmers in the 1960s and 1970s turned to organics as a “prescription for survival,” Kastel said, bucking the trend to either “get big or get out.” And while farmers seized this opportunity for a stable income, he argues that problems within the organic industry began to emerge as corporate businesses also saw an opportunity.
“It worked for farmers for the first couple decades,” he said. “But now there’s an emphasis on maximizing production and real farmers are being placed at a disadvantage.”
With more than 30 years of experience working in the organic industry, Kastel was recently hired as the director of OrganicEye. An investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides, a public interest group that advocates for healthy air, water, land and food by eliminating the use of pesticides and instead advancing healthier agricultural practices, OrganicEye aims to defend organic farming and food production from what supporters call “a systematic failure” of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect the interests of farmers, businesses and consumers.
“At OrganicEye, we want to create a level playing field that is fair so real farmers can make a decent living and consumers get what they paid for,” Kastel said. “And as hard as we work, the USDA still isn’t performing adequately.”
Kastel said there are three trends that are negatively impacting the organic agriculture industry currently; these are also trends that Kastel and his colleagues say the USDA isn’t strictly enforcing through its organic certification and review process.
First, there is a shift from family-scale farms to large, industrialized livestock operations. As an example, Kastel said the USDA has been allowing large farms to bring conventional cows to an “organic” operation and convert them to an organic system, sometimes overnight. These larger farms may also be finding ways to get around a grazing requirement, as outlined by the USDA.
“We think that’s illegal and immoral,” he said.
Secondly, Kastel said hydroponic and soilless greenhouses are also being allowed to be certified organic under the USDA, even though there is a general understanding that to be “organic,” the farmer must be a good steward of the soil, maintaining and improving the soil’s health and fertility on their farm. It is also a requirement under the USDA, he said.
Untrustworthy imports is the third trend Kastel has been seeing in the organic industry. In fact, the first official action of OrganicEye has been the sending of a formal letter to the Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation of a recent incident where a large shipment of imported grain from Turkey was identified as potentially fraudulent. The tip on the allegedly fraudulent shipment came from an industry source and was relayed by the Organic Farmers Association.
Kastel said listening to industry sources is just one way OrganicEye plans to select targets to investigate. He also expects to hear from current and former employees of businesses, farmers and neighbors about possible fraudulent doings. OrganicEye will also discover abuses on their own by visiting organic operations and even looking at satellite imagery to see if something isn’t right on an organic operation.
A new toll-free hotline, 1-844-EYE-TIPS (844-393-8477), has also been established for OrganicEye to help facilitate tips from the public. All claims will be verified with additional witnesses, documentation, photographs and other evidence, Kastel said, and the identities of those whistleblowers protected.
“Our secret weapon is the truth — we will out people who aren’t being truthful,” he said. “Media, farmers and consumers can help bring some of this to justice.”
Kastel, who is an organic farmer himself in Vernon County, said his interest in organics began in similar ways to many consumers who buy organic today: they don’t want potentially harmful agri-chemicals in their food.
“We don’t have control over many stressors on our immune system but we can control food and water,” he said.
Kastel explained he became very ill after spending several successful years working in the world of corporate agribusiness. A doctor told him his illness was likely from pesticide poisoning and recommended Kastel eat an all organic foods diet. While it was an out-there idea at the time, Kastel is finding more and more consumers have a parallel story to his.
“It’s these dynamics that drove me and many farmers and eaters toward organics,” he said.
He acknowledges Congress set up a good mechanism when they created the organic certification process and standards, but that mechanism is no longer working. For Kastel, it’s time to put pressure on government regulators, courts and the marketplace as organic markets continue to grow.
Along with Kastel, OrganicEye employs Jay Feldman, a 40-year veteran of organic policy work and executive director of Beyond Pesticides; and Terry Shistar, one of the nation’s top experts in analyzing synthetic and non-organic materials proposed for use in organic production.
For more information, visit organiceye.org.
CHIPPEWA FALLS — Brad Peck acknowledges it is challenging being a dairy farmer, between rising production costs and prices that rarely cover expenses.
“It’s extremely tough,” Peck, 48, said. “It’s a world market; farmers in the world are suffering. We don’t get paid more, but machinery and fertilizer keeps going up in price.”
Peck and his 62-year-old brother, Bruce, took over the family dairy farm three decades ago.
At the time, they had 75 dairy cows. Twenty years ago, they purchased an automated milking parlor and added another 100 cows. They are looking at ways to increase profitability.
“We are thinking about adding more,” he said, explaining that additional cows would spread out the costs. “We have to add a building.”
On Oct. 1, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made comments in Madison that small dairy farms may perish as the industry moves toward a factory farm model.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said at the World Dairy Expo.
Peck wasn’t surprised by the agriculture secretary’s comments.
“It’s the way the world has been going,” Peck said.
For now, the Pecks are in for the long haul.
“Bruce plans to retire in the next 10 years, and (his son) Jeff will come into the partnership,” Peck said. “We’ll try to build on, and make enough to keep going.”
The Peck farm is about 1,100 acres, and they saw some challenges this year.
“We had a lot of winter kill for alfalfa, so we had to use more corn to make feed,” he said.
To break even on milk, Peck figures they need to receive $18 per 100 pounds of milk.
“In the last month, we’ve gotten that,” he said. “The last four years, we’ve been below that.”
Along with the three Peck family members working fulltime, they also have two part-time assistants, milking the cows twice daily. Peck said finding labor to work with them has been an issue.
Larry Clark, 63, is among the Chippewa Valley farmers who have opted to leave the industry. A year ago, Clark had 250 cows on his farm in the town of Eagle Point, north of Chippewa Falls. After selling another 75 last week, he now has just 10 young steers, which he will eventually sell for slaughter. He is entirely out of dairy farming.
“We’ve been gradually getting rid of them,” Clark said. “We went into retirement. It was hard the first couple of days. But it wasn’t a difficult decision. Our younger help had left, and we would have had to make a big investment to stay in. Emotionally, it was a little hard, because you’ve been doing it your whole life, and then you’re done.”
Clark’s home is four miles from the farm property. He is renting all the farm land to a neighbor. He has no regrets.
“We’re leaving on our terms,” he said. “We’re solvent.”
Jerry Clark, Chippewa County UW-Extension agriculture agent and Larry Clark’s cousin, also wasn’t surprised by Perdue’s comments.
“In Chippewa County, we are down to 216 dairy farms,” Jerry Clark said. “Twenty years ago, we had over 1,000.”
Wisconsin lost 691 farms in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service reports. Through Oct. 1, the state has lost another 634 dairy farms, leaving just 7,476 total milk cow herds.
A state report shows that as recently as 2014, there were 329 dairy farms in the county, so about a third have vanished in the past five years, Jerry Clark added.
Eau Claire County has 87 dairy herds today, and Dunn County has 105, he added.
“We’ve seen it, where smaller farms are lost, if there isn’t anyone to take it over,” Jerry Clark said. “It is expensive to get into agriculture, if it wasn’t handed down to you.”
Smaller dairy farms are more at risk than the larger dairy operations, he added.
“You often see larger farms having more leverage in lending,” Jerry Clark said.
Larger farms also can spread out their costs because they have more cows.
“You really have to watch the efficiency and production costs, but you can’t make it too low,” Jerry Clark said.
George Polzin, 63, milks 80 cows in the town of Goetz near Cadott. He jokingly says he is a dinosaur in the dairy industry, and the ice age is coming. He was shocked when he heard Perdue’s comments.
“I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding,” Polzin said. “Even if you think that, you should be smart enough not to say that in Wisconsin.”
Polzin said he is frustrated that President Trump “hasn’t done anything for us.”
“My son said, ‘This is what this administration thinks about small family farms. They are just writing us off,’” Polzin said.
Polzin said he’s been able to stay afloat because his farm is diversified; he sells corn and hay as well as milking cows.
“I’d hate to rely on milk as my sole source of income,” he said.
While Polzin was shocked by Perdue’s comments, he acknowledges the challenges dairy farmers are facing.
“The last few years have been as tight as we’ve seen in my career,” he said. “If things continue the way they are, the small family farm is really going to struggle.”
Danielle Endvick, communications director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, released a statement criticizing the Trump administration’s “failed agriculture policies.”
“Their conscious dismissal of the pain small- and medium-sized farms are going through, combined with Trump’s erratic trade war with China, has Wisconsin farmers fighting harder for their livelihoods than ever before — and they have to be,” Endvick wrote.
Endvick described small farmers as “the backbone of Wisconsin’s economy.”