Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is Just Part of a Loathsome Administration

When US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue jokes about farmers being whiners or Donald Trump Jr. calls out “looser teachers” they are just showing their loyalty to a president who has said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” . Apparently, in this administration, if you can park any ethics you may have had at the door and be loyal, you might have a job, but understand that the door can revolve pretty quickly.

Clearly, no one can best Trump when it comes to insensitive, hateful, racist, anti-Muslim, misogynist and anti-immigrant remarks. He uses his bully pulpit to criticize anyone who he perceives as not sharing his values, his ethnicity, his version of the truth, or anyone who doesn’t show him enough love.

Sonny Perdue’s joke about farmers being “whiners” was hardly a surprise to me. Of course it was callous, certainly it was dismissive of the current economic suffering of farmers, the bankruptcies, increasing rates of suicide and farm prices that are well below the cost of production.

Why were farmers surprised when the ire of the Trump administration was directed at them by yet another of his loyal foot soldiers, in this case Secretary Perdue? So far in his administration, the best Trump can do for farmers is to call them “great patriots” — not much help or empathy when net farm income has dropped by close to half in the past five years.

Some farmers, I suppose, felt betrayed because the secretary of agriculture is supposed to be in their corner. After all, when Abraham Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture, (USDA) he said It is precisely the people’s Department”.

That has changed. While USDA still does work that is vital to farmers and the nation, keeping all scientists, researchers and career employees silent is more important to this administration than doing the peoples work. Moving USDA researchers out of Washington is a clear indication of that fact. Did Perdue support USDA employees and protest the move? No, again, loyalty to the President “trumped” the common good and the purpose of USDA.

Perdue noted that the move would bring the researchers “closer to the farmers and agribusinesses they serve” not noted was that it would also move them further away from the policy makers who need access to credible data. But perhaps the key word here is agribusiness. Agribusinesses has moved to the head of the line, edging out farmers and the people,– in whose interest USDA was created.

USDA has never been perfect and perhaps, it never became exactly the peoples department that was envisioned by Lincoln. Yet, during the Roosevelt Administration, USDA established systems for parity pricing of farm goods, credit for farmers, good soil conservation practices and developed programs for feeding the poor.

Still, UDSA has clearly discriminated against black farmers and indigenous people and supports some industrial agricultural trends that are not environmentally sound, abandoning years of supporting local production and marketing, crop rotation, education and integrated farming systems we now call agroecology. And under Perdue, they propose to eliminate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Under agriculture secretaries like Earl Butz who notably said “get big or get out” agriculture began to consolidate at a rapid rate, parity pricing was eliminated and small farmers were at the mercy of the market power of increasingly consolidated buyers and sellers.

Get big or get out meant fair pricing mechanisms were gone, farmers had to plant more to break even thus markets were flooded with low priced commodities. To keep farmers afloat USDA instituted subsidy payment programs that spurred even higher levels of production. Agribusiness corporations that sell farmers the seed, chemicals and fertilizer could count on growing demand for the inputs they sold. Food processors and multi-national grain companies could count on ever growing levels of cheap commodities. Wall St. investors could count on more opportunities to speculate and everyone, but the farmer, could plan on more profit. In its efforts to make the “industry” of agriculture thrive, USDA has in many ways, worked against the best interests of farmers and the people.

Just as was Butz’s lack of concern for farmers and his racism in the Nixon Administration was entirely predictable, so too, is Perdue’s insensitivity to farmers,— especially in this administration that has elevated insensitivity and lack of concern for almost everyone to an art-form.

Rural America gets plenty of criticism because “they elected Trump” and therefore somehow deserve to suffer under his administration. Painting with too broad brush is not a sound line of reasoning, as many farmers and rural folks did not vote for Trump and are just as appalled as every other caring American.

Perhaps the farmers and rural folks who did vote for Trump are the only ones surprised by Secretary Perdue’s comments. But, perhaps, the insensitivity and lack of concern as shown by Secretary Perdue and the administration in general, the loss of international grain markets, lack of “great health-care”, denial of climate change and the total failure to follow through on the many campaign promises is eroding some of that rural loyalty?

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Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

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