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USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue pays visit to Cedar Grove dairy farm, talks with producers

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Secretary Perdue talks with Double Dutch Dairy owner Brody Stapel.

A group of nearly three dozen farmers, cheese processors and other ag industry stakeholders got the undivided attention of US Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Friday morning to discuss challenges facing farmers.

Perdue made his first stop in Wisconsin at Double Dutch Dairy owned by Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative President Brody Stapel and his brother and father of Cedar Grove.

Perdue went on a short tour of the 250-cow dairy farm before holding a town hall with the farmers and producers and later speaking to the media. Perdue said he has not tested positive for COVID-19 after President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump announced they tested positive earlier today. Perdue said his travel plans will not change and he will continue his daily travels while wearing a mask and social distancing. He said he will pray for the Trumps' recovery.

"I know he's committed to doing his job and will do everything he can. I can't believe his energy," Perdue said. "This is America. We're going to get through this."

Perdue pushed back on allegations that the USDA is not helping small-scale farmers across the country, instead sending more funding to large farms through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and other programs that have arisen from the economic crisis. He emphasized that farms of all sizes are eligible to apply for CFAP funding, but much of the money has indeed gone to big farms because they produce the most food.

"Every farmer is eligible for CFAP 1 and CFAP 2, small and large," Perdue said. "The fact is the larger farms in the United States produce 80% of the food. That's why the money goes there in that way, although we set price limitations."

Secretary Perdue drinks a glass of milk after a toast to the dairy industry.

Perdue also said it's becoming increasingly difficult for small-scale farms to survive this "economy of scale" in Wisconsin and elsewhere, because many small farms face challenges on capital and the cost of operations. During the town hall, Perdue said that young people looking to go into the ag industry, like the children of farmers who plan on taking over the family farm, should not expect to make as much money as their parents are. Instead, he told them to expect small profits at first and grow from there.

Although the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin have been reduced by half, Perdue said milk production and farm productivity has not wavered – instead, the closings of farms have been absorbed by larger farms. Perdue claimed Wisconsin produced 17,000 pounds of milk per cow on average per year in 2000, but the number has now jumped to 25,000 pounds per year.

Despite the worries for small farmers, Perdue said the various programs USDA has offered in light of the economic crisis, such as CFAP and the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, have helped keep the domestic market afloat. Perdue recognized the uncertainty surrounding the US-Mexico-Canada Trade agreement and the Phase One trade agreement with China, affirming that the US will hold its trade partners to their agreement and will even pursue them in court if they undercut the trade agreements.

"One of the problems we've had with our trade deals in the past is that the United States has just been patsies. We've not required our competitors or importers to live by the rules," Perdue said. "We're going to enforce the rules and make people live up to what they said they were going to do."

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue tours Double Dutch Dairy in Cedar Grove on Friday, Oct. 2.

USDA is hoping American dairy producers can break into Asian markets, Perdue said. Although he said demand for dairy has stagnated this year due to COVID-19 and other market concerns, he said demand is still there and the gradual reopening of the American economy and agribusiness will lead to a better market. He also said that with outbreaks of African swine fever virus, there are open opportunities for the US to jump into foreign pork markets, like in Germany, where the presence of ASFV was recently confirmed.

"We don't wish anyone that kind of disease ... but people in China love pork," Perdue said. "Those kinds of tragedies have been good for pork producers in this country and they have taken advantage of it. Pork exports are at record highs."

Perdue also told farmers he will look into better solutions on representation for federal milk marketing orders. He said the issue is one of the "most complicated and frustrating things to deal with" and that he wants solutions from the field to get to Washington. Perdue also said he would look into giving farmers a bigger voice in democratically voting on the orders because farmers are concerned that bloc voting is not democratic.

Perdue ensured farmers and producers that the USDA is advocating for them in the capital on many other issues, including broadband access in rural communities, mislabeling of plant-based dairy products and the short supply of field laborers. He also said he wants money to trickle up in the market from being put directly in the hands of farmers.

Perdue also remarked that President Trump is the "common denominator" between Washington and rural America. He said despite growing up in Queens and being born into real estate, President Trump has an affection for the country's food producers, who face daily financial struggles in their work.

"He views ag producers ... as the embodiment of the American spirit, who just keep on keeping on and doing what it takes year after year to feed this country," Perdue said. "We're food independent – we don't have to depend on any other country there."