Economy Trade

USDA Secretary: Family Farms Are Probably Done

Written by SK Ashby

At least 1,200 Wisconsin dairy farms have shut down in the past two years but when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited the state yesterday, his message was, well -- it wasn't reassuring.

Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this.

Perdue spoke at the World Dairy Expo where he said family farms that aren't already dead probably will probably die soon.

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.

Perdue’s visit comes as Wisconsin dairy farmers are wrestling with a host of problems, including declining milk prices, rising suicide rates, the transition to larger farms with hundreds or thousands of animals and Trump’s international trade wars. [...]

Jerry Volenec, a fifth generation Wisconsin dairy farmer with 330 cows, left the Perdue event feeling discouraged about his future.

“What I heard today from the secretary of agriculture is there’s no place for me,” Volenec told reporters. “Can I get some support from my state and federal government? I feel like we’re a benefit to society.”

It's not immediately clear to me if his was an honest, sobering assessment or what. I mean, what Perdue said was not necessarily wrong, but Jesus Christ -- I don't know if he should tell a group of farmers struggling with rising suicide rates that there's no hope for the future.

Perdue doesn't have to lie to them, but he also doesn't necessarily have to tell them they're fucked.

It's true that family farms -- particularly dairy farms -- were struggling before Trump's trade war began as Americans' tastes have changed (I personally don't drink milk anymore because it's loaded with carbs), but Trump's trade war has drastically cut demand for milk that farmers had begun to sell overseas.

Asked for his thoughts on what Trump's trade war has meant to dairy farmers, Perdue said something just as baffling as telling farmers there's no hope.

Jeff Lyon, general manager for FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative in Madison, asked Perdue for his thoughts on Trump’s trade war with China. [...]

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. About 3.7 billion pounds of U.S. farmers’ milk had to find other markets during that span, the analysis found. [...]

Perdue responded to Lyon’s question by calling the Chinese “cheaters.”

They toyed us into being more dependent on their markets than them on us. That’s what the problem has been,” he said. “They can’t expect to come into our country freely and fairly without opening up their markets.”


No one has been "toyed." This is the way markets and economics work. American farmers grew more dependent on access to the Chinese market because 1.4 billion(!) people live in China whereas the American market for dairy products is sharply declining. Farmers have to sell their goods somewhere if Americans won't buy them and China is the biggest market in the world.

The alternative to selling in China or some other nation is to shut down because farming to exclusively serve the domestic market is no longer economically viable.

I am starkly reminded that the men responsible for governing our economy have not studied economics in 50 years if they ever did.

I know there's a lot of other things going on in the world today, like Trump's impeachment and his corresponding meltdown, but I believe the USDA secretary saying family farms are finished deserves more attention. It's kind of a big deal.