The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, didn’t sugarcoat the plight of small farms during a visit Tuesday to Madison for the World Dairy Expo.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small get out,” he said. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
Understandably, the comment didn’t sit well with many small farmers. Paul Adams, who works on a 147-year-old family farm in Eleva, noted the struggles the farm is enduring in a Democratic Party of Wisconsin news release.
“I’ve talked with Realtors to see if we could sell the farm because well, this really isn’t too fun trying to make ends meet,” he said. “We’ve met with bankruptcy lawyers to see if that’s the way we have to go.
“I don’t see a real good future in dairy. ... If I can’t make ends meet it’s kind of foolish for me to stay in Wisconsin and dairy.”
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Darin Von Ruden, whose family runs a 50-cow organic dairy near Westby, also serves as president of the Chippewa Falls-based Wisconsin Farmers Union. District directors for the organization include Lauren Langworthy of Wheeler, Ed Gorell of Eleva and Craig Myrhe of Osseo.
“The mindset that has been pushed on farmers to continually grow is ultimately pushing them out of business as overproduction forces market prices down,” Von Ruden said in a WFU news release following the expo. “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.
“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.”
Wisconsin has lost 551 dairy farms this year, according to the Associated Press, after losing 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017. Industry concerns include drops in milk prices, rising suicide rates, international trade wars and a move toward larger farms.
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Von Ruden said part of the solution is “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. It’s time to drive policies that prioritize fair prices for family farmers of all scales. That means managing growth in the dairy industry to meet profitable demand.
“It’s also high-time we address the growing trends toward corporate consolidation and foreign investment that threaten the future of our food system.”
Perdue said the 2018 farm bill should help many farmers and defended the trade war with China. That, however, did little to placate Jerry Volenec, a fifth-generation Wisconsin dairy farmer who was decidedly discouraged as he left the Madison event.
“What I heard today from the secretary of agriculture is there’s no place for me,” he said in the AP story. “Can I get some support from my state and federal government?
“I feel like we’re a benefit to society.”
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor