To hear the words spoken by a government official – any official – would be troubling enough.
But to have them come out of mouth of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, of all people, while discussing the future of small farms simply dumbfounds us.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Sonny Perdue told farmers in Wisconsin last week.
The man most responsible for implementing and setting our nation’s farm policy has all but thrown his hands in the air as America’s family farmers struggle to stay afloat amid a maelstrom of existential worries including low commodity prices, consolidation, declining income, trade uncertainty and rising bankruptcies.
Nebraska – and the United States as a whole – needs small farmers. But those farmers need better leadership than they’re receiving from federal officials at this time.
Not all of the market forces hindering the farm economy are controlled by the federal government. But many have been created in Washington, with disastrous trade policy front and center. Political meddling in markets has made it harder, not easier, to do business.
Yes, trade pacts, like the one the U.S. signed recently with Japan, are great. But prolonged bouts over tariffs have cost Nebraska’s ag industry roughly $1 billion each of the last two years, according to the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Meanwhile, the lion’s share of direct aid payments – $28 billion to cut losses from self-inflicted harm – has been directed to the largest farms.
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Despite this, Nebraska has fared better than most Midwestern states. Much of this stems from voters’ approval in 1982 of a constitutional amendment prohibiting corporations from owning farms. It remained in force until 2006, when a federal appeals court declared it unconstitutional. But it slowed the consolidation wave.
Size of Nebraska farms has steadily increased at a time when the number of farm operations decreased. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, the average Nebraska operation grew from 841 to 971 acres (15.6%) between 1997 and 2017. Over that same period, the state experienced a drop from 54,539 to 46,332 farms and ranches (15.1%).
Notice how similar these percentages are. That’s no coincidence.
As one fifth-generation farmer told the Wisconsin State Journal following Perdue’s appearance, "What I heard today from the secretary of agriculture is there's no place for me."
Perdue’s comments bring to mind similar remarks by then-U.S. Sen. David Karnes. During a 1988 debate at the Nebraska State Fair, the incumbent noted Nebraska had “too many farmers.” Damaged by that blunder, Karnes’ reelection bid failed.
Three decades later, the ag economy still powers Nebraska. Family farms remain integral to that success.
But those small operations must have the support from the top that continues to elude them -- a point Perdue's words hammered home.