Trump Administration to Small Farmers: Stop Whining, Your Demise is Inevitable

Abandoned farm house, Wasco, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

You really have to hand it to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, he can callously joke about farmers being “whiners” and consistently show how out of touch with farmers he really is, but as ag secretary, he still gets “the guest of honor” billing at a World Dairy Expo Town Hall. 

When asked what he planned to do to prevent another five years of low farm prices, he noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) thinks milk prices will be better in 2020 than they were in 2019 — so I guess everything is OK now?

He also pointed out that trade is the No. 1 issue he hears about and stated: “We are a country so blessed that we have to depend on foreign markets because we are so productive” — you remember, those markets we lost due Trump’s trade wars, lost with nary a whimper from Perdue.

Perdue completely glosses over the impact low farm prices have had on rural America. He doesn’t mention the rising farm suicide rates, the bankruptcies or the 551 Wisconsin farms that have already gone out of business in 2019.

Get big or get out, that’s just the way it is. America is about big business, and if small farmers, small business owners and rural America get thrown under the bus in the process, well, they should just move on and stop whining.  

Jerry Volenec, a fifth generation Wisconsin dairy farmer put it this way: “What I heard today from the Secretary of Agriculture is there’s no place for me.” He’s right. Under Perdue there is no place for small farmers and under this administration there is no place for a thriving, small-town rural America. 

By telling all those small farmers at the town hall that there was no guarantee that small farms would survive, and saying, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue was parroting Nixon’s ag secretary Earl Butz, who coined the phrase  “get big or get out.” By doubling down on that mantra, which led to the farm crisis we are in today, Perdue was effectively slapping farmers in the face and letting them know that any idea of a fair price was not part of his brand of failed farm policy.

Apparently, if you are willing to “get big” and milk thousands of cows, that efficiency of scale might help you keep your head above water. And of course there are always USDA subsidy programs — the bigger you are, the bigger your subsidy payment. Would Perdue’s USDA ever consider developing a fair pricing system for dairy? One that guaranteed fair farm prices by matching production with market demand instead of making farmers dependent on export markets and vulnerable to a president’s egotistical trade wars? Fat chance. This administration, despite its praise for small business, has no time for fair anything. When asked if he would support a federal supply management system (a system that has kept small farmers profitable in Canada for over 50 years), Perdue responded, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.” 

By casually dismissing small farms, Perdue is also dismissing rural America in general. Rural communities have always depended on small farms, not just because small farms patronize businesses in their communities, but because farm families are part of the community: The churches they attend, the public schools their kids go to and all the small businesses that made small towns good and vibrant places to live. 

Anyone who grew up in rural America has seen the striking parallel economic decline of small farms and rural communities from the days of Earl Butz to the present, with little sympathy from Butz or his alter ego, Sonny Perdue. 

Trump calls farmers “great patriots” and sees no reason they should not happily suffer the consequences of his trade wars, attacks on health insurance, social security, civility and pretty much everything that has, in the past, made America a welcoming place. 

Rural areas and “fly over country” in general are said to be “his base,” ridiculed for electing him and now suffering from his policies that favor the moneyed elite, who have always been the only people he really cares about. Perdue is just another part of a loathsome administration.

If you’ve ever read Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas you probably have some insight into the thought process of people who vote against their own best interests. Perhaps it’s time for the sequel: What’s the Matter with America? It wasn’t just rural America that elected Trump, it was America. Unless one happens to belong to that class of moneyed elites, sorry, but you voted against your own best interests if you voted for Trump. You can’t be for Trump and against his policies. It’s a package deal.

As rural Americans, we unfortunately get Sonny Perdue as part of that package.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Wisconsin Examiner.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.