What is the Cost of “Get Big or Get Out?”

Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon from December 1971 to October 1976, promoted policies that favored large-scale corporate farming and an end to programs designed to protect small farmers.

A few months ago, at the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, our secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, made a statement that was similar to one made in years past by the then secretary of agriculture Earl Butz, GET BIG OR GET OUT.

There are those who believe that consolidation is inevitable and there is no place for small family farms in modern day agriculture. I am not one of them. While I do not have the literary eloquence of Wendell Berry, or the knowledge and expertise of John Ikerd or other folks who over the years have defended the family farm, I can tell you what we lose when we lose family farms. We have observed and experienced it first-hand with the demise of the family dairy farms in Southeast Louisiana.

Don and his family began their dairy business in 1977, and, as he writes in his article “Managing for Margins,” of the 35 or so dairies in his area when they started, most are now out of business. Today, there are only 3 dairies remaining.

In our case we were relatively new to the dairy business. When we sold out after 13 years, it did not count for much when you realize some of those folks had been milking cows for 3 generations. All were affected, from the grandparents, who watched their life’s work disappear, to the children of those grandparents who realized that there would be nothing left to offer their own children.

When the realization that it was over finally became a reality, the hardest to deal with was not the cows being sold, but the disillusionment. We had worked hard, paid our bills, tried to do the right thing and in the end it just wasn’t enough. And all the while producing more and more, for less and less.

It really did not dawn on us exactly what we were losing. We understood selling the cows and believing we were failures. And we understood that we had to find other ways to make a living. But after a while we realized that one of the most meaningful losses was the loss of community, of being bound to other people by the same problems and work load, and belonging to, for the lack of a better word, a fraternity. There was commonality of purpose and if one was in a bind, a call to a neighbor brought help.

After all of the milk cows were sold, that was lost. The neighbors for the most part were still there, but most were working day jobs so they were no longer available. We had all assumed different lives. So, after a while the feeling of togetherness finally disappeared.

As we get older it seems that things were just better in the old days. I guess this is why they are called the good old days or, as they were called by Robert Penn Warren, a charade of the past. Yet, I realize that nostalgia can be very dangerous. I find myself getting caught up in all the yesterdays and if I am not very careful I will not pay enough attention to today. But after thinking about this for a while, I reckon it is just selective memory and we are all guilty of remembering the good and forgetting the bad. Truth told, this may be the only way we can carry on.

It has been said that if we do not know our history we are subject to make the same mistakes over and over again. My history tells me that small farmers make important communities. It leads me to ask, if not now, when will be a good time to decide exactly what the point of this society really is? If profits are above people, let’s just put it out there and move on. And make no mistake the corporate goal is to make all of us consumers rather than producers.

In this book of essays and poems, Berry speaks about the growing gap between people and the land. Though somber, he offers hope, a firm believer in the power of the human race not only to fix its past mistakes but to build a future that will provide a better life for all. If you’d like to read more, it’s available in the On Pasture shop.

As Americans, the work ethic has been a part of our moral sense since the beginning. Today, the majority of us profess to believe that hard work will enable one to attain the American dream, but in reality the system invalidates this belief. It seems that the belief among the get big or get out crowd is that if all of the small family farm folks would just shut up and get out of the way the big boys could take care of everything.

But today there are folks who are open to alternative ways of working and producing and living that may yet beat the get big or get out idea. After all of the analyzing and all of the theorizing is done it seems that the most important question was asked by Wendell Berry: What Are People For?

4 thoughts on “What is the Cost of “Get Big or Get Out?”

  1. Thanks, again, Don for sharing your experience. Your generous mentoring and practical approach certainly have influenced the way we Farm. Happy New Year to you and the family!

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