Trend toward 'big' not always better

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America losing something important with decline of family farms and mom-and-pop shops.

THE IMMEDIATE TOPIC when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue came to Wisconsin last week was the hastening disappearance of small family dairy farms here, in America's Dairyland. So far in 2019 Wisconsin has lost 551 dairy farms, following the disappearance of 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017.

No, wait. That 551 number was published last Tuesday. So, today, the sixth day later, the number presumably has risen to about 563.

For small family farmers, this isn't a public policy debate. This is an existential crisis. A way of life is ending. A cultural touchstone for Wisconsin is being lost. And there's a significant question Americans - not just those from Wisconsin, and not just those who farm - should be asking themselves: Is this who we really want to be?

HERE'S A QUOTE, from Secretary Perdue, uttered during his visit to the World Dairy Expo in Madison: "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don't think in America we, for any small business, have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability."

In other words, you small operators, get used to it - the big boys rule. In a real sense, Perdue was just stating a fact.

Family dairy farms may have been the subject matter of the day, but the sentiment applies across the board.

Not all that long ago other family farmers - beef and hog producers, grain growers - could support and raise families on a few hundred acres, or less, going back to the early 20th century. Now successful farmers count acreage in the thousands, and have to keep getting bigger or die.

Look beyond the agricultural segment and it's easy to see the "big get bigger and the small go out" theory in an accelerated phase.

Smaller mom-and-pop shops used to fill streets in communities, large and small. Most deteriorated and couldn't meet the scaled-up competition, hollowing out America's small cities and towns.

Now, years later, many of the big-box stores and retail centers that chased away mom-and-pops are themselves succumbing to the disruption of the digital era's big operators.

IT'S A SIMILAR STORY in other sectors, such as manufacturing and banking/finance.

Enormous financial conglomerates, often with controlling ties to Wall Street, have become the big players nationwide squeezing smaller community banks as consolidations and takeovers became common. Thus was coined, in the midst of the 2008-09 financial meltdown, the term "too big to fail," leaving taxpayers on the hook to prop up the industry.

Go back a few decades, and in communities like Beloit most manufacturing operations were locally owned and operated. That's no longer the case, as bigger corporate players have replaced local ownership in significant numbers.

Name a segment, any segment, of the economy - the story is pretty much the same: "big get bigger ... small go out."

LET'S BE CLEAR: We respect the power of the marketplace and the historic experience of free enterprise and its role in making America the world economic leader. We do not believe in government picking winners and losers.

Trouble is, government already is doing just that. The political caste - where money is mother's milk for politicians - is engineered to hear the biggest and loudest voices, often at the expense of small-time operators who have neither the money nor the connections to counter the competition.

So the big get bigger. The small go away. In field after field of endeavor.

Where that leads is not a mystery. Ownership becomes consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. And the overwhelming majority of people become the modern equivalent of sharecroppers.

PUBLIC POLICY should not pick winners and losers. But neither should it look the other way while the "big get bigger" at everyone else's expense until an ownership society exists only at the top.

Here's why, in our view: What made America great was a nation of strivers, who believed they could build an ever-growing family future with their own toil and sweat, asking permission of no man. Erode that concept, upon the altar of "the big get bigger," and you risk America.

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