Paul Olson, President, National Farmers Organization
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited my home state of Wisconsin. At least I thought he was the Secretary of Agriculture. He sounded more like the Undertaker of Agriculture.
Mr. Perdue took on the serious problem of the disappearing smaller family dairy farm. Instead of spreading help and hope, or even compassion, he came peddling the age-old poison pill of “the big get bigger and the small go out.”
If there is a dumber thing you can say in a state that has already lost over 500 dairy farms just this year, I have no idea what it might be. I say that as a lifelong dairy farmer myself, and as President of a farm organization that works with well over 1,000 family dairy farms.
Too bad he didn’t say “rural communities go out,” instead of saying “the small go out.” That way, more people could see what is really at stake here. All of the small communities near my farm are suffering economically as more and more dairy farms go out of business.
Too bad he didn’t say “the environment goes out,” because then more people could understand the water quality problems that come from concentrating the manure from thousands of cows in one place.
Too bad he didn’t say “food security goes out,” because then more people could understand the risk we take with our food supply when we concentrate so much of our animal agriculture on a single site. Diseases, much less terrorism, need thousands of animals in one place to do their worst.
But, of course, Undertaker Perdue didn’t say any of those things. He simply gave smaller dairy farmers the last rites by denying “we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” No sense helping smaller farms that are struggling, no matter how many social benefits they provide for all of us.
Let’s not kid ourselves about the future Mr. Perdue sees for American dairy farming. Already, we have some dairy farms that milk 30,000 cows. Do the math. That’s the equivalent of 300 smaller family dairies milking 100 cows each. Looked at another way, instead of almost 40,000 dairy farmers providing America’s milk and cheese, we would barely need 300 dairies of such enormous size.
Investors, not local independent farmers, will own and operate the giant dairy operations that Mr. Perdue sees as our future. Don’t think it can’t happen — I have watched the pork and poultry sections of American agriculture already go down that path. The results are not pretty.
There is still time to turn things around. I sent a letter and proposal to Mr. Perdue months ago with a carefully thought-out plan on how to stabilize dairy farming in America. Too bad I haven’t heard back. There are many positive things we could talk about with a real Secretary of Agriculture.
I’m sure Undertaker Perdue is pretty busy, though. He has export markets to bust, jokes to make about farmers suffering under misguided administration policies, and the manure of “get big or get out” to spread. Still, I hold on to the smallest hope that he will remember why he was hired and who he is supposed to serve.
Meanwhile, you can bet that I, and everyone in my organization, will be doing all we can to bring security and prosperity to America’s family dairy farms. It is heartbreaking to see so many top managers and wonderful families struggling the way they are. And it is flat out crazy to sit by and watch as such a vital part of rural America slips away.