Ag secretary: No guarantee small dairy farms will survive


October 3, 2019


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue listens to a question from a Wisconsin farmer during a town hall meeting at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis. Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

MADISON — President Donald Trump's agriculture secretary said during a stop in Wisconsin that he doesn't know if the family dairy farm can survive as the industry moves toward a factory farm model.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters Tuesday following an appearance at the World Dairy Expo in Madison that it's getting harder for farmers to get by on milking smaller herds.

"In America, the big get bigger and the small go out," Perdue said. "I don't think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability."

Perdue's visit comes as Wisconsin dairy farmers are wrestling with a host of problems, including declining milk prices, rising suicide rates, the transition to larger farms with hundreds or thousands of animals and Trump's international trade wars.

Wisconsin, which touts itself as America's Dairyland on its license plates, has lost 551 dairy farms in 2019 after losing 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The Legislature's finance committee voted unanimously last month to spend an additional $200,000 to help struggling farmers deal with depression and mental health problems.

Jerry Volenec, a fifth generation Wisconsin dairy farmer with 330 cows, left the Perdue event feeling discouraged about his future.

"What I heard today from the secretary of agriculture is there's no place for me," Volenec told reporters. "Can I get some support from my state and federal government? I feel like we're a benefit to society."

Getting bigger at the expense of smaller operations like his is "not a good way to go," said Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union and a third-generation dairy farmer who runs a 50-cow organic farm.

"Do we want one corporation owning all the food in our country?" he said to reporters.

Perdue said he believes the 2018 farm bill should help farmers stay afloat. The bill reauthorizes agriculture and conservation programs at a rough cost of $400 billion over five years or $867 billion over 10 years. But he warned that small farms will still struggle to compete.

"It's very difficult on an economy of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, or 60 or even 100 cows," he said.

Perdue held a town hall meeting with farmers and agricultural groups to kick off the expo. The former Georgia governor seemed to charm the crowd with his southern accent and jokes about getting swiped in the face by a cow's tail.

Jeff Lyon, general manager for FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative in Madison, asked Perdue for his thoughts on Trump's trade war with China.

Trump's administration has long accused China of unfair trade practices and has imposed escalating rounds of tariffs on Chinese imports to press for concessions. The administration alleges that Beijing steals and forces foreign companies to hand over trade secrets, unfairly subsidizes Chinese companies and engages in cyber-theft of intellectual property. China's countermoves have been especially hard on American farmers because they target U.S. agricultural exports.

According to a September analysis by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, American dairy solids exports to China fell by 43% overall in the 11 months starting in July 2018, when China enacted the first round of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. dairy products. About 3.7 billion pounds of U.S. farmers' milk had to find other markets during that span, the analysis found.

Chinese leaders have said they're ready to talk but will take whatever steps are necessary to protect their rights.

Perdue responded to Lyon's question by calling the Chinese "cheaters."

"They toyed us into being more dependent on their markets than them on us. That's what the problem has been," he said. "They can't expect to come into our country freely and fairly without opening up their markets."

The secretary said the Trump administration is working to expand other international markets, including targeting India, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia. He said he had expected Congress to ratify a new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada to replace NAFTA but noted that Washington has been distracted over the last few days, an allusion to impeachment proceedings against Trump ramping up last week.

GOP congressional candidate wants constitutional convention

MADISON, Wis.  — A Republican Wisconsin state lawmaker who is running for Congress wants to call a convention of the states to consider making changes to the U.S. Constitution, including imposing term limits on federal offices.

The measure by state Sen. Tom Tiffany, up for a hearing in a state Senate committee on Thursday, builds upon a similar resolution the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature passed in 2017. That one allowed for calling a convention to consider a balanced budget amendment. This one is more expansive.

The new proposal allows for the convention to consider three things: imposing fiscal restraints on the federal government; limiting the federal government’s powers and jurisdiction; and imposing term limits for members of Congress and other federal officials.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution creates two paths for amending the document. Congress can refer an amendment to the states by a two-thirds vote of each chamber or two-thirds of state Legislatures — 34 states — can request that Congress call a convention of the states. Both methods require at least 38 states to ratify an amendment before it can take effect.

The convention process has never been used to amend the Constitution. Democrats and other opponents are reviving arguments they made in 2017, saying a convention could become a free-for-all, leading to far-ranging revisions that could drastically reshape the nation's founding document.

The proposal is “reckless,” would tie the hands of federal lawmakers in times of economic crisis and impose “arbitrary and anti-democratic” term limits, said Matt Rothschild, director of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign which tracks spending in elections.

Tiffany, along with the measure’s co-sponsor Rep. Dan Knodl, penned an op-ed piece ahead of the hearing, explaining their support for the measure. They argue that the ability to call a constitutional convention was put in place to rein in the federal government was it has “grown too reckless.”

“Adding term limits to our Constitution removes incentives for career politicians to become part of the DC swamp, and instead focus their attention on solutions to the problems we sent them there to fix - like our overspending,” Tiffany and Knodl wrote.

Tiffany has been in the state Legislature, where there are no term limits, since 2011. Knodl, from Germantown, has been in since 2009.

The proposal comes as Tiffany is running for Congress in northern Wisconsin’s 7th District. Tiffany’s resolution calls for term limits at the federal level, but he has not said what they should be. One of his Republican challengers, Jason Church, has said he would not serve more than four terms.

No Democrat has announced they are running in the deeply Republican district that had been represented by Republican Sean Duffy before he resigned last week. Evers has yet to set the date of the special election.

The proposal working its way through the Legislature can be enacted without Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ signature because it is a resolution and not a bill to make a state law. That means the hurdle to enact it is much lower, as it needs to only pass the state Senate and Assembly, both of which are controlled by Republicans who approved a similar idea just two years ago.

Thirty states have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget amendment. Fifteen states have passed the more expansive one being considered currently in the Wisconsin Legislature.


Wisconsin governor ‘resents’ comments by Trump ag secretary

MADISON — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers says he “resents” that President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary suggested small dairy farms need to get bigger in order to survive.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made the comment on Tuesday while visiting the World Dairy Expo in Madison. Perdue said, "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”

Evers says Perdue “kind of put the pox on small farming in the state, small dairy farming in particular.”

Evers reacted to Perdue after his own visit to the World Dairy Expo.

Evers says small dairy farms should be supported rather than told to get larger. He says, “I frankly resent that the department of ag secretary for the federal government came in and kind of lambasted them.”


Associated Press