March Madness and American Agriculture: Get Big or Get Out

By J.D. Scholten

The first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is one of my favorite weekends of the year. The opening round usually takes place on a Thursday and Friday. That Thursday makes for my worst day at work all year. That Friday, I traditionally take off and can be found at a sports bar or a friend’s house all day glued to multiple screens. The rest of the weekend I am locked in, following the buzzer beaters, the upsets, and all of the original storylines that make Hollywood screenwriters jealous.

By the end of the first weekend my bracket has been busted. We tend to fall in love with the Cinderella stories of some small schools making it deep into the tournament. These improbable stories capture us. They’re unlikely for many reasons but it all comes down to money.

The closest Division 1 basketball team to me, here in Sioux City, Iowa, is University of South Dakota. The Coyotes play in the Summit League, where the average budget for men’s basketball teams is $1.78 million a year. The conference with the largest average budget for men’s basketball teams is the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) with over $11.7 million a year.

The system is rigged in favor of the schools from the wealthiest conferences, aka The Power Six conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, and Big East). When a team makes it into the NCAA Tournament their league gets the monetary reward, which then splits funds with all of the teams in the league. The Summit League, like most small and midsize conferences, only gets one team in the tournament every year, leaving them with one check. The wealthiest conferences get several schools into the tournament and their conferences receive more money. The system favors the wealthiest conferences.

We see the same thing in American agriculture. We have “get big or get off the farm” policies that disproportionately reward the largest farms. Going into the last Farm Bill, research shows that the top 10 percent of subsidy recipients collected 77 percent of farm subsidies over the 21 years examined.

Large farms can weather the storm when there’s low commodity prices. When access to capital is difficult for most farmers, large farms can get the loans and take on the debt that smaller farmers can’t. That allows them to buy the newest equipment with price tags north of a million dollars that allows them to take on more land and produce massive yields that my grandfather, who farmed his entire life, couldn’t even fathom.

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the Trump Administration were clear that there was no guarantee for smaller farms. At the World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI, Perdue notoriously said “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” But how big should we go?

Consolidation in agriculture started long before the past administration. These current policies that benefit the largest farms have been criticized by think tanks across the political aisle from the Cato Institute to the Center for American Progress.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we need to start pushing legislation that is size neutral. It shouldn’t matter if you have hundreds of acres or thousands of acres; you should have an honest chance at succeeding with what you have.

Current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Biden administration have a tremendous amount to work ahead of them. They are committed to a climate-focused agenda all while cleaning up the mess of an unresolved trade war.

Yes, there are smaller farms that do incredibly well – just like there is Creighton University who moved from a mid-major into a Power 6 conference, and just like Gonzaga University is one of the favorites in the tournament coming from a smaller conference.

The current Farm Bill ends in 2023. As we start preparations for the next one, there is new leadership in three of the four positions in the House and Senate Ag committees. The time is now to reform Ag policies to make them more equitable, unlike the Big Dance.