Recently, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue made the comment, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” This belief echoes the “get big or get out” mantra coined 50 years ago by then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, and the current rumors floating around in Iowa that there will be fewer than six farmers per county within five years.
Not only is this rhetoric divisive, it whitewashes the uglier truth: that the mantra’s ethos of profit-over-people-and-planet is squeezing hardworking farmers out of business, devastating lives and rural communities and harming the environment. It happened with livestock and now, with the low commodity prices, it is happening to mid-sized corn and soybean farmers.
Such rhetoric also suggests a false choice. There should be room on our landscape for farms of all kinds and sizes, from the 3-acre vegetable farmer who feeds his or her community with local food, to the mid-size diversified crop and livestock farmer, to the 3,000-plus-acre commodity farmer.
Farm size shouldn’t dictate the right to farm. We need American farmers of all scales who love growing food, fiber and energy; who feel the tug of connection to plant life, animal life and the natural world; and who are active stewards of their land and natural resources.
The “get big or get out” mentality, however, has too often resulted in an extractive farming system that is not resilient. In the 1970s, it ushered in the fencerow-to-fencerow frenzy that led farmers to take on high debt loads, compete with their neighbors and rely more heavily on harmful chemicals. Today, the practices linked to this mind-set continue to deplete our soils, damage our habitats and pollute our water — not to mention drain our rural landscapes of people, schools and businesses.
All farming styles and farm sizes have a place in American agriculture — if the farmers managing these enterprises embrace the goal of actively stewarding our precious agricultural resources. Our secretary of agriculture should be spearheading farm policy that rewards these efforts rather than portending the demise of family farms and rural communities.
For instance, instead of backing taxpayer handouts meant to mute the effects of the trade war, why not reward and support farmers who are fostering ecological diversity on their farms by using cover crops, three or more crop rotations and grazing livestock? Such support would greatly benefit farmers and consumers alike.
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Yet Perdue is instead dismissing as doomed or irrelevant those farms deemed “too small.” Through his comments, Perdue fails to recognize two key realities that resist consolidation. First, Americans are innovative. Give us a challenge and we will find a solution. In a supportive setting, there’s no question American businesses, consumers and farmers would find ways to collaborate on creating markets for crops beyond corn and soybeans.
The second reality is the power of American consumer demand. When American consumers crave something different, they have the purchasing power to change agricultural product demand overnight. Look at the $52 billion dollar organic industry, the meatless meat trend and the burgeoning hemp swing: all demand-driven and innovative. Perdue should champion choice for American consumers rather than providing a conciliatory pat on the back and the promise that the 2018 farm bill will help farmers “stay afloat.”
While Perdue does make a point of visiting small and diverse farms, the gestures are hollow when contrasted with his words. Instead of perpetuating the flawed “get big or get out” ideology, Perdue should get out of the Butz box and celebrate the diversity, innovation and consumer clout that has always characterized American life. As secretary of agriculture, his job should be to advocate for all farmers, not just corporate agriculture and its destructive model of business.
Committed farmers have always known: If you don’t protect your resources, your bottom line will suffer — and your community suffers, too. The resources Perdue should protect are the limited soils we have left and the farms and farmers dotting our rural and urban landscapes that promote resiliency, rather than extraction.
Perdue’s USDA needs to start equipping farmers with policies and subsidies that ensure a sustainable and resilient future for American agriculture and rural communities.
Wendy Johnson, a farmer from Charles City, is president and Ann Franzenburg, a farmer from Van Horne, is vice president of Practical Farmers of Iowa.