More than two years have passed since U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue departed, but the brouhaha he created with one callous comment during his tenure in the Trump administration remains memorable.
In 2019 Perdue visited the World Dairy Expo in Madison, an event attended by struggling dairy farmers. When asked about the industry’s future, Perdue’s tone-deaf reply was this: “In America the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Perdue caught serious flak. While some may dub it brutally honest, “defeatist” and “shortsighted” are more accurate. A stable, affordable food supply is essential to national security. For this, we need small- to medium-sized producers and processors in addition to their industrial counterparts.
The nation’s rural regions have hollowed out under the “go big or go home” approach. Fewer farmers means fewer customers for small-town businesses and fewer students in schools, a regrettable trend.
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With that backdrop, current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent visit to Minnesota was a refreshing change. Rather than throwing up his hands, Vilsack is wielding his department’s considerable resources to aid producers, strengthen rural communities and, for extra measure, combat climate change.
Will Vilsack’s ambitious strategy work? Time will tell. But this is an overdue course correction for this massive agency and worth a try. The number of Minnesota farms has been in long decline, from 86,000 in 1993 to 67,400 now, according to a Star Tribune analysis and a 2022 federal report.
Vilsack served as USDA secretary under former President Barack Obama and was appointed again by President Joe Biden. He visited Minnesota in late August to tout $230 million in new rural development funding for the state. He also met with an editorial writer.
Part of Vilsack’s mission was playing political defense. Congressional gridlock on spending bills means a potential government shutdown on Oct. 1. Vilsack made the case to protect agricultural investments included in previous legislation, such as the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
Congressional Republicans in particular may look to divert some of these dollars to other purposes, such as more traditional farm supports. That’s stale thinking that would likely benefit bigger producers most.
Vilsack didn’t just have the shutdown in mind. He also had almost evangelical fervor in outlining new strategies, ones with historic funding levels, to reinvigorate smaller producers and communities while mitigating climate change. These initiatives include:
- Working with producers and food companies to create a new market for foods grown with climate-sustainable methods. Like organic products, consumers may be willing to pay a premium for these products, creating a new niche for growers.
- Providing assistance to transition to renewable energy, with farmers potentially able to sell excess energy back to utilities.
- Continuing support for biofuels, including the transition to sustainable aviation fuel. Delta Air Lines and Xcel see enough potential for this that they are pushing to locate a manufacturing hub in the state.
“What we’re now saying is here’s the alternative to getting big or getting out. It’s to get entrepreneurial,” Vilsack said.
In turn, that could alleviate a data point that alarms Vilsack. “There are about 2.1 million farms in America. Of these, 7.5% received 89% of farm income. So roughly 2 million farms had to share 11% of that income. The question is whether we’re OK with that.”
So far, this new push has garnered a favorable reaction. Dan Glessing, a dairy farmer near Waverly and Minnesota Farm Bureau president, said farmers are open-minded about these initiatives, particularly if new programs can mitigate the risk of transitioning to climate-smart practices.
Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen says the federal shift has resulted in significant investments to aid small producers and processors. Petersen said he’d recently visited an apple orchard that benefited from the new push for schools to buy produce locally.
In an interview, former Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represented northwest Minnesota and once chaired the House Agriculture Committee, praised Vilsack’s efforts. As for climate-smart agriculture’s naysayers, Peterson said other countries are already moving forward on this front, leaving the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.
“Whether you like it or not, this is the world you live in,” Peterson said. “If you don’t get on board with this, you’re going to get left behind.”