Earlier this week, at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue made the following remarks in regard to the economic crisis facing many small and mid-sized farmers, especially dairy farmers: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”
He also said, “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.”
Perdue’s comments are infuriating (after I read them I spent a good chunk of the afternoon mad enough to throw things), and unconscionable words for anyone, let alone a public official, to offer to people in pain. They’re also an example of powerful narrative strategy at work, and it’s important to pay attention to that.
For decades the message of corporate ag and its various supporters and figureheads has been, “get big or get out.” Perdue’s statements echo the words of Nixon administration agriculture secretary Earl Butz, who even more bluntly presented the same message. They also echo the 2018 comments of University of Minnesota economist Marin Bozic, when he told a state legislative committee that 80 percent of Minnesota’s dairy farms were doomed to go out of business and should not be offered help. Bozic praised the factory farm model of Riverview, LLP, with thousands of cows per site, as the future of dairy.
The big getting bigger and pushing out the small has been sold to farmers and the general public as the inevitable destiny of U.S. agriculture for a long, long time. It’s often even been presented as progress or a good thing; it’s always been presented as unstoppable — there’s nothing you could do about it even if you wanted to. It’s no wonder how many well-meaning people, especially those not connected to farming, but also many farmers, now believe this. That’s exactly how dominant narratives work. What is repeated most often (with all the weight of corporate money behind it) is what people are most likely to believe; it shapes what people see as true, right, and possible. It buries, smothers, other beliefs and values people also hold. This is a concrete way in which power is taken from people.
Perdue’s choice to frame his remarks with “in America” ties in American exceptionalism, another strain of the dominant narrative, in a particularly nasty twist. What he’s doing is using people’s feelings of patriotism as yet another way to stop them from questioning the harm that’s being done to them, to hold them back from thinking other ways are possible. The message is: this is inevitable, you’re over, nothing you can do about, this is just how it is in America, and you’re an American, right, so how can you complain about that? And Perdue blaming “environmental regulations” for a crisis that is actually caused by corporate power is an example of yet another narrative element frequently and effectively used to distract from the heart of the real problems facing farmers.
The most important thing to remember, of course, is that the message isn’t true. Nothing is inevitable about factory farm dairies. Nothing is inevitable about the current course of U.S. agriculture. We’ve gotten to the point we’re at because of deliberate choices that have not only allowed, but heavily subsidized and supported, the big to get bigger and push out the small.
Corporate-driven public policy choices have led to the results they were designed for, to the massive benefit of those interests who designed and advocated for them. And through it all, agribusiness and its figureheads like Perdue have been telling farmers, essentially, “If you can’t make it, it’s your fault — get with the program.” The strategy has been to destroy people’s livelihoods and then blame them for it. Create the factory farm system and then tell dairy farmers, well, too bad, but sure is tough to make it milking 50 or 100 cows anymore what with all these big farms with their economies of scale.
We can make different choices. Different policies create different results! We can have any kind of food and farming system we want. It’s going to require people organizing to take control of our government away from corporate interests. Small- and moderate-sized farmers deserve a government that goes to bat for them. We can have that. Together we can choose to support farming at the scale that provides the lifeblood of countless rural communities.
Nothing is inevitable; so much more is possible than most of us have been led to believe. An enormous amount of corporate ag’s power is rooted in the mere fact that it’s gotten so many people to buy into the myth that the corporate way is the only way. That can be changed. It’s past time to change it. Time to fight back.