Sonny Perdue

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks to farmers in Morgan, Minn., in this file photo from Aug, 7, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

After the U.S. secretary of agriculture this month offered a pessimistic outlook on the future of small dairy farms, many North Dakota and Minnesota leaders went about reaffirming their support for farm country.

During a visit to Wisconsin earlier this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressed doubts that family dairy farmers have an economically viable model in the short-term — pointing out that small-time farmers will struggle against large rivals that benefit from an economy of scale.

"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."

The comments were rankling for some — notably the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose president, Gary Wertish, released a statement criticizing the agriculture secretary.

“It’s incredibly frustrating to hear things like this from someone who’s supposed to represent all family farmers,” Wertish said. “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 comments also come in the midst of a trade war with China that’s grown to involve many farmers’ bottom lines. Nancy Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, said in August that a significant amount of North Dakota’s soybean crop previously “went directly or indirectly to China,” and expressed frustration on behalf of farmers that “they are the weapon that is being used by the Chinese” in the trade spat.

There was a bright spot last week, though, with news that China bought more soybeans and pork ahead of scheduled trade meetings. News also broke Oct. 11 that President Donald Trump suspended a $250 billion tariff hike that was expected to take effect on just day s later, with Chinese ag buying expected to increase soon as well.

Still, Perdue's comments rankle ag leaders as well as lawmakers.

The staff of Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., referred to her remarks on Twitter: “We should be supporting small farmers and producers and celebrating their importance to our economy, not telling them the only pathway to success is … giving up,” Smith said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a fellow Minnesota Democrat, also affirmed support for local farmers, calling them “the lifeblood of rural communities,” according to a statement provided by her presidential campaign.

“In the Senate, I've worked to pass legislation supporting family dairy farmers and as president, I will immediately address the dairy crisis as part of my comprehensive approach to strengthening our agricultural industry,” she said.

The office of U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

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