The big get bigger, and the small get out.
That's how Sonny Perdue, the erstwhile and inept U.S. secretary of agriculture, summed up the unofficial mantra of farm policy since the farm crisis of the 1980s. It has been the quicksand of farm reality and unofficial policy through both Democratic and Republican White House administrations.
It has taken rural America to the brink of devastation.
Rural schools, hospitals and Main Streets are besieged. Larger farms have bypassed local suppliers and services in favor of doing business with far-off markers. Dairy farmers, once the backbone of rural communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, have been and continue to be lost at an alarming rate.
In the 1980s, farm economists stressed efficiency as the key to surviving hard times. Now, the cure-all appears to be "get bigger."
The economic stress throughout farm country isn’t a big versus less big issue. All farming operations are squeezed through a poisonous brew of bad federal farm policy and unfair and monopolistic markets that punish independent producers.
Reform, next to impossible in Washington, D.C., where money and influence roar and grassroots voices are only whispered, is so badly needed. Good policy ideas percolate beneath the surface, but political will is nonexistent.
Different options exist. The most obvious and perhaps easiest would be to sever the federal government from farm policy. It was the original intent of the American Farm Bureau to do just that for several decades.
Failing that, the government could target federal assistance to those producers who need to survive. Those who argue against targeted spending howl that it is another form of welfare and amounts to picking winners and losers. However, there is something dreadfully wrong with crop insurance and subsidizes given to those who don’t need the help. A commitment to subsidy limits for individual operations would be a money-saving measure.
The federal government ought to invigorate starting-farmer assistance with new energy and greater commitment. The farming population is older than the overall population, which raises questions about who will till the land and milk cows in the future.
Aging farmers want to turn over their land to younger people who have the energy and excitement to plant, harvest and tend animals. What the new farmers don't have is a way to get affordable financing. It doesn't help the farmer who wants to retire to have his or her funds locked up in land and machinery that no one can afford.
Few inside or outside agriculture view the creation of a new landed aristocracy good for rural America.
There are many avenues in which Sonny Perdue could be a leader for rural America. Instead, sadly, he is an out-of-touch placeholder who has little knowledge or care about the economic devastation that has been inflicted on rural America.
Getting bigger or getting out is no solution. It will not revitalize farming communities. What it will do was accelerate the ruination of our beloved and much needed rural communities.