Sonny Perdue with students

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue enjoys a milk toast with Sugar Creek Elementary students Jameson, left, Elliot and dairy farmer Marilyn Hershey, right, on Oct. 1, 2019 in Verona, Wis. Perdue met with Fuel Up to Play 60 students to kick off National Farm to School Month. Fuel Up to Play 60 is the nation's largest in-school nutrition and physical activity program, created by National Dairy Council and the NFL. Earlier in the day, Perdue spoke to farmers at World Dairy Expo in Madison.  Andy Manis/AP Images for Dairy Management Inc. 

MADISON, Wis. — At the country's premier dairy event of the year — of all places — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue expressed doubt that smaller farms will survive in the dairy industry.

While speaking at a town hall meeting on Oct. 1 with farmers and dairy industry officials at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Perdue made comments that sparked reaction from across the dairy industry.

"Big get bigger, and small go out," said Perdue of industries in America. "It's very difficult on economies of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, 60 or even 100 cows."

Without ramping up production and scale, Perdue said small dairy operations will struggle to stay afloat. No small business in America has "guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability of survival", he added.

When asked directly if he believed small dairy farms would have to get bigger in order to survive, Perdue said "that remains to be seen."

Always trying to survive

Rochester dairy farmer Jeannette Sheehan has participated as a coach, judge and competitor at the World Dairy Expo for the last decade and a half. Last year, she was named Dairy Woman of the Year.

With her husband and other family members, Sheehan manages Sheeknoll Farms in Pleasant Grove Township, southeast of Rochester.

Sheehan was in Madison on Sept. 30 to judge 4-H contests but was back in Minnesota 24 hours later to get work done on the farm. By the time she heard about Perdue's remarks, it was past sundown and she was still milking cows.

"It's good that we're kind of the ultimate positive people, and believe we'll make it," Sheehan said of dairy farmers. "We're always going to try to survive."

It was a questionable setting for Perdue to share his input, said Sheehan, who serves on the board for the World Dairy Expo. She said she was excited when the board secured Perdue's attendance for the expo, but they didn't know what his message would be.

The Census of Agriculture showed a steep drop in U.S. dairy farms in the last 10 years. Minnesota lost more than a thousand dairies over that time.

But for Sheehan, Perdue's comments ignore that the success of a farm of any size is contingent on the operator and management.

"We can survive as small farms, you just have to be a really good manager and have a plan," said Sheehan.

Sheeknoll Farms would be considered a small operation. But the 365-head farm is a unique situation because it involves several family members and has a diversified business.

"We breed and focus on cows that milk well, have good feet and legs, and have generations of animals for us to sell," said Sheehan. "It's been a pretty good market, up until this year."

Response from state organizations

Hours after the town hall event, Minnesota Farmers Union shared its disappointment in the secretary’s latest comments. This comes just two months after MFU took public opposition to statements made by Perdue at Minnesota Farmfest, when the secretary joked about farmers being "whiners".

“It’s incredibly frustrating to hear things like this from someone who’s supposed to represent all family farmers," said MFU President Gary Wertish. "The ‘get big or get out’ business philosophy hasn’t worked. Rather it has caused consolidation in the agriculture industry that’s driven too many family farmers off the farm and hurt rural communities."

The response to Perdue's comments from the Minnesota Farm Bureau showed the contrast of views between the state's two largest farm organizations.

By the time MFB President Kevin Paap learned of Perdue's statements, the story was getting national attention.

Perdue's comments weren't necessarily taken out of context, said Paap, but he thought the media got carried away with them.

"I think it's important that the ag secretary expresses his views in public, whether it's at the World Dairy Expo, Farmfest or congressional hearings," said Paap. "In all of agriculture, there's a lot of serious financial and emotional challenges out there."

Paap is in his sixth two-year term as president and has worked with MFB for the last dozen ag secretaries, starting with Clayton Yeutter in 1989. He said all of them, including Perdue, have been "great champions for agriculture."

Paap ranks Perdue as one of the top secretaries in the last two decades. He said Perdue has a better understanding of the industry because he was raised in the trade.

The fondness between MFB and Secretary Perdue is mutual, and Perdue took his first Minnesota farm visit at Paap's farm. He said the two have had at least a dozen face-to-face meetings since then.

Paap said there are plenty of MFB members who are struggling on farms right now, but Perdue's words weren't meant to put the blame on them, but rather the industry.

"It's getting harder to get by," he said. "I would say the same thing as the secretary did, and I don't think it's dairy specific, it's all of agriculture."

As she milked cows with the rain continuing to soak the fields at Sheeknoll Farms, Sheehan decided hearsay of Perdue's comments was enough.

"I don't want to ruin the rest of a gloomy day," she said.

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