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Unrestrained Capitalism and It's Effect on Agriculture

An edited version of the following will appear in AgriView newspaper tomorrow. Here's the uncut


In Response to Sonny Perdue.

“Food is a tool. It is a weapon in the U.S. negotiating kit.” Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture 1971-1976. Original proponent of the get big or get out agriculture model.

“The two great aims of industrialism- replace people with technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy- seem too close to fulfillment” Wendell Berry, Agrarian Philosopher.

On August 12, 2019 The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue mocked an assemblage of Minnesota farmers at a listening session by telling a joke that ended by calling out farmers as “whiners.” The same American farmers upheld as great patriots by the President called out as whiners by the Secretary of Agriculture at a gathering of their own kind. This coming at a time of unprecedented farm bankruptcies that are spiking as a result of a number of issues, not the least of which is a trade war that is hampering U.S. markets while mountains of grain rot and a new season of harvest awaits.

Perdue’s comments to reporters and industry people at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin on October 1st were an exclamation point to the degree he is out of touch with the current agricultural situation in America’s Dairyland. “In America the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said. Is there a phrase for the opposite of rolling over in one’s grave? Because Earl Butz must be doing a two step dance of joy in his. The idea of unrestrained capitalism as a model for agriculture was touted by Butz back in the early 70’s after he was tabbed as the Secretary of Ag by Richard Nixon. The result was our great Fast Food Nation, a place where corn and soy can be processed and processed again and fed to willing Americans cheaply. Some 50 years later where are we as a result of the fencerow to fencerow strategy? A nation with an obesity epidemic and a need for overpriced insulin. A nation whose Gulf of Mexico dead zone grows each day as agricultural runoff creates a hypoxia, or lack of life supporting oxygen to sea life. A nation whose rural cultures and communities are vanishing as a result of the broad ranging impact of the get big or get out mentality that began with the Butz era of removing controls implemented by the FDR administration. Controls put into place to control supply, control price, and control environmental degradation, and ultimately preserve our rural culture that is vanishing. Perdue’s casual mention that environmental regulations are also hampering small farmers is “completely false” according to Paul Daigle of the Marathon County Conservation Planning and Zoning Department. “Regulations don’t kick in until you’re at the 500 cow level,” Daigle added.

I spoke with four dairy farmers ranging in age from 35-54. All agreed to be quoted and identified. All agreed the system is broken and tilted in favor of large farms. All agreed the current administration has not lived up to it’s campaign promise to rural America and its farmers.

James Juedes is a third generation dairyman from Ringle, Wisconsin. He had this to say in response to the statements by Sonny Perdue last Tuesday in Madison. “It is very troubling to me as a small family farmer to hear Sonny Perdue basically throw us under the bus. This country was built on family farms that were, and could still be, the backbone of rural America. To say that a supply/growth management system will not be supported by this administration is appalling to me. It is a death nell to what we are doing to save our way of life now and for future generations.” Juedes, a lifelong Farm Bureau member, agreed to let me quote him saying “I’m strongly considering changing my allegiance to the Democratic party after these statements by Mr. Perdue. This administration has not followed up on it's campaign promise to farmers.”

At the root of this is how we choose to produce food. If food is a weapon as Earl Butz historically stated, then farmers are merely pawns in the march toward total industrialism. Les Holtz, 3rd generation dairyman from Rudolph, Wisconsin who milks 100 organic mixed breed cows had this to say about Perdue’s comment, “In America the big get bigger and the small go out.” Holtz replied, “He’s right, but does that make it right?”

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