U.S. Ag secretary questions whether small dairy farms can survive without growing

Photo by USDA.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue warned it will be “very difficult” for family dairy farms to stay in business unless they scale up in size.

Speaking after a town hall event with dairy stakeholders Monday at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, President Trump’s ag secretary told reporters he doesn’t think small businesses should “have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said.

Those comments vexed dairy farmer Jerry Volenec, who spoke with reporters in a news conference organized by the state Dem Party shortly after Perdue’s appearance.

“What I heard today from the secretary of agriculture is there’s no place for me,” said Volenec, who has 330 cows at his Grant County farm. “I feel like we’re a benefit to society.”

According to data from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin has lost 551 dairy farms so far this year — a rate of roughly two per day. That figure puts the state on pace to surpass the 638 dairy operations lost in 2018 and already tops the 465 lost in 2017.

Farmers at the town hall attributed the decline to: low milk prices; a transition away from the traditional family farmer model towards operations that “flood the market” with product; and Trump’s trade policies that have sparked retaliatory tariffs on dairy from Mexico and China. Perdue labeled the Chinese as “cheaters” in international trade.

Perdue said he believes the 2018 farm bill enacted by Congress will “stem the flow” of those losses but forecasted it will still be difficult for smaller operations to compete with larger factory farms.

“It’s very difficult on an economy of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, or 60 or even 100 cows,” he said.

He noted that while the number of farmers was shrinking, “the dairy cows haven’t reduced that much.”

“The dairy cows haven’t gone to slaughter,” he said. “They’ve gone to someone else’s herd for the most part.”

But Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union who runs a 50-cow operation in Westby, warned that consolidation was “not a good way to go.”

“I mean, do we want one company owning all our food in this country?” he asked at the DPW news conference.

See the DATCP statistics:
https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Wisconsin/Publications/Dairy/Historical_Data_Series/brt2004.pdf

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