Wisconsin: The Dairy State?
By Becky Streeter
Wisconsin has been widely known as the Dairy State since the late 1800’s — it even says “America’s Dairyland” on our licenses plates. However, with current trends in the dairy market, we may not be able to tout this title much longer.
Due to great advancements in technology, cows are producing more milk, and faster, than ever before. Danielle Endvick, Communications Director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, says annual milk production per cow in Wisconsin nearly doubled over roughly 40 years, from 12,331 pounds in 1980 to 23,725 pounds in 2017. While this may look great on paper, it’s had a disparate impact on farmers. This trend has led to a severe “glut of milk” on the market.
With overproduction, and the encouragement of continuedoverproduction by programs like Dairy 30×20 (a government initiative to grow Wisconsin’s milk production to 30 billion pounds annually by 2020), there are serious industry concerns of excessive milk on the market. With too much milk, dairy buyers don’t want to pay competitive wages to farmers, and farmers end up making scant profits. According to figures compiled with Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability data from 2009-2014, dairy farmers received as little as three cents profit for every gallon of milk sold, considering cost of production.
Outside investment and ownership in dairy farms also plays a role in current pricing trends for milk. “Wisconsin farmers continue to see increasing pressure on the market from outside investment and expansion of mega Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from out-of-state owners and milk being cheaply sourced from flooded markets out-of-state,” Endvick says. “With commercial giants like Wal-Mart investing in their own infrastructure to process dairy, the outlook for dairy markets to naturally balance is bleak.”
The latest figures reflect Endvick’s concerns. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin lost nearly 700 dairy herds in 2018 alone. As someone who grew up on a dairy farm and saw the effects of hardships firsthand, Endvick’s heart goes out to today’s current farmers. She says, “When I see these family farms going out of business, I see a piece of our Wisconsin heritage that we will likely never get back.”
Local farmer and army veteran Jeff Peck from Chippewa Falls deeply feels these trends in the dairy market. Peck Farms was established in 1942 by Peck’s great grandfather. He currently has 180 milking cows and 165 replacement heifers. Peck says the low wage he earns from milking is throwing his farm into disrepair. “We are unable to replace machinery, upgrade facilities, rebuild a snow collapsed heifer shed, or grow our business in any way,” he says. “Our financials look worse now than they did four years ago, and we basically haven’t been able to improve or replace anything in that time.”
Peck remembers better days when they used to be a show farm, giving tours and even hosting presidential candidates. Now the number of visitors has dwindled, and though most still enjoy viewing cows, a certain amount of sadness fills Peck because he knows he’s generally going backwards. “Even if I had the time for maintenance and beautification, I don’t have the money,” he says. “We’ve had to get more familiar with our banker. He wants us to cut our personal draws or sell off the cabin and hunting land my dad owns.” Anything to make ends meet.
Endvick points out that dairy farmers are notoriously optimistic, and there is reason to believe there is hope on the horizon. Dairy prices are finallystarting to trend upward after a long, volatile stretch. According to a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in Wisconsin the June 2019 average milk price was $17.90 per 100 pounds of milk, down 20 cents from May but $1.40 above June 2018.
There is also a movement within the dairy industry called Dairy Together, through which farmers and the industry can come together for their cause. “This movement is a farmer-led movement, organizing for long-term structural reform to the dairy pricing system, as well as short-term emergency measures to support farmers during the price crisis,” Endvick says. “Dairy Together is also looking outside of strict policy measures to build values-based supply chains with allies and partners in the market to achieve a higher price for family farmers. Dairy Together is building power in the policy and market arenas by building a durable coalition of farmers, farm organizations, allied consumer and environmental organizations, and supply chain partners.”
Local partners are also mobilizing on behalf of struggling dairy farmers. Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, will be hosting Farm Aid 2019 on September 21. This will be the second time Wisconsin will host this music festival in its 30 years running. This event is designed to raise awareness of the struggles family farms are facing and the need to reform policies forcing America’s family farmers out of business. Says Endvick, “It’s really going to shine a light on the crisis in America’s Dairyland, growing monopolization in our food system, and the need for fair prices if we want to keep family farmers on the land.”
Even in the midst of some industry optimism, Peck is still uncertain about the future of his farm. Too many hard years prevented him from making so many necessary updates that, even if the market turns around, it will be difficult to get his feet on solid ground again. He feels he has a few options, all of them risky:
Eliminate debt by selling half his land and trying to rent land to keep the cows fed and have a place to haul manure.
Find other ways of adding value to his farm in order to keep his cows. An example would be crafting his own brand of cheese. It’s a time-consuming endeavor to what is an already time-consuming business.
Make a controlled exit from dairy farming, as so many other farms have done in the recent years.
Keep on keeping on — hope that things really will change and not be worse ten years from now than they are today.
Though he loves dairy farming, Peck is glad he received a degree in Agriscience when he was younger, just to make sure he has something to fall back on. It gets harder and harder every day to see the state of his farm: “I currently get up at 4:30am and work weekends and holidays just to watch our building get older and finances go the wrong direction. My dad was optimistic the first two years of low prices, saying we had been here before. Now, after four years, he wants nothing to do with the checkbook — he doesn’t want to have to decide which of our industry partners gets paid and which don’t.”
To learn more about the dairy industry, feel free to check out any of the following websites:
Wisconsin Farmers Union – https://www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/
Dairy Together – https://www.dairytogether.com/
Farm Aid 2019 – https://www.farmaid.org/