Mixed feelings prevail after Expo

There were plenty of new things to see among the 859 trade show vendors, but the trade show was down a bit from 887 businesses exhibiting a year ago. Attendance was reported at just over 62,000, down from over 65,000 a year ago and over 68,000 two years ago. International attendance at 2,133 people from 94 countries last week was off by about about 200 compared with a year ago and 500 fewer than two years ago. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, October 11, 2019

MADISON, Wis. — On the business side of the 53rd World Dairy Expo last week, I came away with feelings as mixed as the weather — gloomy skies and a deluge of rain at the beginning of the week gave way to sunny skies and brisk breezes at the end.

There were plenty of new things to see among the nearly 859 trade show vendors. Annual attendance is reported at around 62,000. U.S. and international attendance did appear to be down from previous years. 

For many, the first three days of the show felt slow in comparison even to last year. Some observed that the steep loss of family farms over the past 18 months was “being felt” at Expo.

Some pointed to the weather as heavy rains produced flooding Tuesday into Wednesday. 

Others blamed the discouraging — and twisted — headlines that came out of a town hall meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the start of the week. The town hall was attended by around 200 dairy farmers, agribusiness representatives and organization leaders, along with dozens of reporters and television cameras.

What followed the hour of honest and detailed discussion (reported here as in Farmshine last week) were press accounts that warped Sec. Perdue’s comments and went viral through the wire services, starting with the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune and continuing into various agricultural press.

By Thursday, Wisconsin Farmers Union had sent op-ed responses to high profile news outlets, taking on the Secretary for his supposed comments about how we supposedly do things in America.

The stage was effectively set to cast the current Trump administration as purveyors of a factory farm model, attributing to the Secretary a proclamation that, “In America, the big get bigger and small get out.” This is now playing right into the hands of Democratic presidential hopefuls who are pal-ing around with HSUS in the Midwest, pretending to care about cows, farms and fly-over country.

Well, maybe some Democrats do care, but we know HSUS does not, and we know what the purveyors of the Green New Deal think of our cows. That’s another story.

Trouble is, the Secretary never said the words that have started this chain reaction. Or, at least, not in the order in which his words were parsed together in print.

You see, many other words were omitted. Context is everything.

From the sidelines and super busy with other pursuits at the Expo — but having attended the town hall meeting in person and having written my own coverage of the event in last week’s Farmshine — I began to see the headlines erupting on social media as share upon share made the news travel rapidly from Tuesday into Wednesday and then it was off to the races.

I began wondering how I could have missed such a derogatory comment. And I learned by Friday that, no, my notebook and partial recording had not failed me. Full transcripts were released by other reporters — providing that important context.

Transcripts showed clearly that the offending quote from Sec. Perdue was pulled from a very long and detailed response to a question and spliced together to make new statements. Not only is context everything, so is punctuation.

Too late, the discouraging and depressing headlines continued to beat small and mid-sized family farmers over the head all week. They began to feel as though even the USDA could care less about their survival – wanted them gone in fact to make way for “factory farming.”

The narrative was discouraging and many farmers confessed to me just how it made them feel. Several said reading those words made them feel like – why bother even going to Expo?

“Stick a fork in us. We’re done, according to Perdue,” a Wisconsin dairy farmer said to me Thursday.

Bad enough that the headlines erupted after Tuesday’s town hall were discouraging. Worse, that they were false in what they signaled to family farms. But there is also much truth in Sec. Perdue’s observation. He was describing “what we’ve seen in America,” not making a proclamation of how things will be done in America.

And the advancements in science and technology ARE what we have seen in America. Yes, they help smaller farms too, but it is science and technology that are contributing to the progress that is allowing rapid consolidation to take place.

For the record, I am pro-science and pro-technology and pro-innovation. But I also believe we are at a crossroads where it has gone so fast and so far, that we need to walk back and look at outcomes and impact and have a national conversation.

Just one day after the Expo closed, Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford and member farms like Dotterer’s Dairy, Mill Hall, Pa. were on CBS 60-minutes talking about how high-tech dairy is today and the market challenges being faced by dairy farmers at the same time.

The twisted quotes from Tuesday’s dairy town hall meeting at Expo gave the impression that Trump’s USDA is proclaiming a factory farm model for the future of agriculture. In a sense, as we embrace rapid technological advancement, we are embracing that transition. These are inescapable facts that must be sorted out and dealt with.

The Secretary was merely observing the reality of what has been happening in America’s rural lands with increasing speed over the past decade.

While some of Perdue’s specific answers to specific questions were disappointing and other responses were encouraging, none of those specifics were reported elsewhere with any attention. All attention was placed on the twisted quote.

We have a Secretary who can see what is happening and who can have an honest discussion about it, while being pragmatic about what the potential solutions are that can be accomplished without the help of a paralyzed Congress.

No matter what we think of Dairy Margin Coverage, it was put in place to help smaller farms withstand these difficult times and figure out their place in the future. That’s just reality.

At the same time, what was lost in those press reports is we have a Secretary that at least took time to cheer-lead for the small and mid-sized family farms by using his bully pulpit to advocate for whole milk in schools. No one picked up on that, except for Farmshine.

Perdue also touted “local” food as a way to bring value back to farms. I haven’t seen any other press reports talk about that.

Most reporters ignored those thoughts. They also ignored the fact that the stage for the rapid consolidation in dairy — that is occurring today — was set 10 years ago under former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who today has his salary paid by dairy farmers through their mandatory checkoff as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and defacto leader of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy that is streamlining “U.S. Dairy” through various checkoff funded innovations and programs.

Think about this for a moment: U.S. dairy has progressed with technological advancements that are unparalleled in the world. American farmers have always looked to technology and to the future to produce food for the growing population and to be good stewards of the land.

It is the love of science and technology – along with the love of cows — that draws throngs of U.S. and international visitors to the World Dairy Expo each year. They want to see what’s new. They want to learn from each other. They want to make progress to do more with less.

Technology allows farmers to do more with less. That has meant producing more food from fewer cows. At some point it also means producing more food from fewer farms.

Perhaps it is time to not just praise science and technology with the eagerness of children on Christmas morning, but to have an honest conversation about where science and technology are leading the food industry. 

Sec. Perdue was not very well informed when it came to the topics of fake meat and fake milk that are ramping up through USDA science and technology into cell-cultured and DNA-modified yeast factory vats and bioreactors. Instead of talking about factories replacing farms, he stated that “consumers will choose”, and he said currently those who are choosing fake meat and fake milk aren’t consuming the real stuff anyway.

That was the short-sighted comment that raised my eyebrow, not the parsed-together quote about big and bigger.

It’s time to dig into the structure of things.

Perhaps the real concern and conversation to be addressed is the structures and alliances that have been formed over the past 10 years as they are now coming to light. In former Secretary Vilsack’s talk at Expo about exports and dairy innovation, and in DMI’s workshop about what’s on the horizon, my initial impressions are that we are at a place where the industry is speeding up innovation and wanting more latitude on standards of identity at a time when we should be saying: “let’s push pause please.” 

The race to feed the world has produced immeasurable waste and loss already, will it now change the face of agriculture forever?

Where is science and technology supportive for the family fabric that has made our food production the envy of the world? And where is science and technology promoting a path that leads us away from that model of food production to take it out of the hands of many families enriched by competitive markets and put it into the new emerging models of fewer hands, consolidated markets and lack of competition.

Don’t blame Secretary Perdue for these wheels that have been in motion. Don’t expect the government to solve it. But what we can do is have the honest conversation, ask the questions, hold leaders accountable, and move the needle far enough to provide a more level field of play for the small and mid-sized family farms. 

You can count on Farmshine to break away from the narratives on both sides of this thing to do exactly that.

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