Shades of Earl Butz.

That’s the thought that sprang to mind when I read U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s gloomy assessment of small-scale dairying recently. He made the comments while at the World Dairy Expo in Madison. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said, speaking to reporters.

Earl Butz, the agriculture secretary under President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, famously made similar comments about the need to get bigger or get out as he turned U.S farm policy away from the New Deal supply management methods implemented during the Great Depression. Instead he stressed less reliance on government supports and urged maximum production and developing export markets. Plant fencerow to fencerow, he told farmers. The world will buy it.

Dave Skoloda

Dave Skoloda

In June 1975, I had a closeup look at Butz’s efforts to build those markets on a trade-boosting trip to Venezuela and Brazil. One of three journalists on the trip, we watched as Butz schmoozed officials in Caracas, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Uberaba, spreading the word about America’s production prowess and intention to be a reliable food supplier for the world.

Coincidentally, the trade party learned of the progress of negotiations with the then-Soviet Union for an agreement for the Soviets to purchase huge amounts of grain from the U.S.

The agreement was key to Butz’s maximum production strategy for U.S. farm policy; without such purchases surpluses would cause prices to plunge and political pressure from farm-state legislators would threaten his vision for an industrial agriculture model.

Butz’s vision led to the intensive use of the land that critics predicted would place intolerable pressure on the very resources that have made U.S. agriculture the wonder of the world — abundant water, fertile topsoil and moderate climate.

One of those critics was Wendell Berry, poet, essayist and novelist, who wrote in “The Unsettling of America” published in 1977, that Butz’s agribusiness “takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a result, we as a nation are more estranged from the land — from the intimate knowledge, love and care of it.”

He continues his critical assessment in a lengthy essay in “A Small Porch,” published in 2016. Rather than the Butz vision of food production, America could have opted for a system more respectful of the land and water — one with less erosion, fewer toxic chemicals, less water use and landscapes more amenable to supporting communities and wildlife. A vision more in line with Aldo Leopold’s assertion: “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

But we didn’t. And what we have is an industrial model that turns the food-for-the-world precept on its head, using precious resources of water and fertility on a crop — corn — up to 40 percent of which goes to industrial products such as ethanol, high fructose corn syrup and CAFO-produced meat, all of which are suspect as to need when compared with the needs for more balanced environmental and nutrition policies.

We have, as a result, a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from nutrients washed down the Mississippi River from Midwest farmland. We have shrinking water supplies including the Ogallala Aquifer and the Colorado River. We have learned recently of the devastation to the world’s birds due to habitat loss and pesticide use. We have depopulated rural America, just as Berry predicted. And we have a government that shrugs as in Perdue’s resignation to shrinking numbers of small dairy farmers.

It’s time for a reassessment of Butz’s vision. We are stuck with a farm policy that favors the industrial model that was favored by Butz and his agribusiness supporters. But climate change has revealed the risks inherent in monoculture, industrial-style agriculture — especially the erosion and nutrient loss in the intense storms associated with a warming world. And the free -market, free-trade climate necessary to all-out production faces an uncertain future given the trade wars that President Donald Trump has launched.

It is the prospect of assigning agriculture a prominent role in capturing and holding carbon dioxide — the main cause of warming — that can be the catalyst for such a reassessment. This offers a way to compensate farmers for the role they can perform in maximizing carbon sequestration. In fact, that discussion is already underway with talk of incentives for greater use of cover crops, rotational grazing systems and other methods to restore the health of the land.

Revisions to farm policy at the federal level are the essential first step; until incentives to monoculture production are addressed — ethanol blending requirements included — the needed changes will not happen.

A new vision for agriculture and rural America should be part of the 2020 election debate. Butz’s vision is no longer suited to a world of environmental crisis and trade turmoil.

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Dave Skoloda resides in La Crosse.


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