As Wisconsin farmers plant crops this spring, perched in the cabs of big tractors rolling through the fields, many will breathe a sigh of relief that they’re still in the driver's seat.
From the dairy barns to the cranberry bogs, farmers have endured sinking commodities prices and miserable weather that’s resulted in some just now finishing last year’s corn harvest.
About 820 dairy farmers alone called it quits in 2019, a rate of more than two per day, and hundreds of other farmers in beef, pork and grain bailed out or barely made it across the finish line to 2020.
“Wisconsin agriculture has absorbed a flurry of punches,” said Daniel Smith, president and CEO of Cooperative Network, a Wisconsin and Minnesota group that represents cooperatives in dozens of fields including agriculture, health care and utilities.
On March 16, experts will provide insights on what’s next for the state’s iconic dairy industry, focusing on solutions and a key question: “Are we still America’s Dairyland?” That event — the Midwest Dairy Symposium — is co-sponsored by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, the Tommy G. Thompson Center for Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Pulitzer Center.
Most recent dairy crisis began in 2014
The recent dairy crisis that began in late 2014 underscored changes in agriculture that have been taking place for decades but sped up more than many expected. Farmers are now engaged in a global marketplace that can be upended for months, even years, by trade wars and increased competition.
One thing’s certain, Smith says. “We are not going back to a type of agriculture that served us well in the past because those times are gone. We need to honor the past and learn from it, but we are not going to re-create it.”
Wisconsin still produces more cheese than any other state and even most countries. But in the last few years, thousands of dairy farmers lost money practically every day they milked cows as an oversupplied market kept prices depressed. Waves of small and midsize farms shut down because they didn’t benefit from economies of scale found on larger operations.
“As much as I love small dairy farms, we don’t have very many automobile manufacturers that build 400 cars a year. We did at one time,” said Jack Britt, a dairy consultant and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University.
“My family lost our farm in the early ’80s. I was already away working at a university, but my dad moved from dairy farming to grain farming, bought about 700 more acres and ended up with too much debt when corn prices dropped by around 50%. My family lost everything, including the home that they lived in. So even though I was not still on the farm, I have a very clear understanding of what some folks are going through today,” Britt said.
Adaptability is key
Smaller farms are diversifying out of commodities markets and into areas such as dairy cattle genetics, raising young animals for bigger farms and producing specialty milk for artisan cheese plants. They’re looking at raising alternative crops that are on the rise, such as hemp and hazelnuts.
The small dairy farm from 10 years ago won’t be around in another 10 years if it doesn’t keep evolving, said Brody Stapel, a dairy farmer from Cedar Grove and president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. “Adaptability,” Stapel says, “is the key.”
Not wanting to exit dairy, but disillusioned with milking cows, some farmers have switched to goats. In 2019, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Wisconsin led the nation with more than 72,000 dairy goats, easily topping California which came in second with 40,000, followed by Iowa and Minnesota.
Worldwide, goat milk is more popular than cow milk and it has gained ground in the U.S. with a changing consumer marketplace and immigrants accustomed to its taste.
Farmers should be mindful of these kinds of societal adjustments, Britt said, and develop products that respond to them.
The impact of climate change
They also have to be mindful of climate change. The biggest impact is going to be the availability of water, placing dairy farms in a vulnerable spot as they need large amounts of it for cattle and crops.
"Our forecast is that dairy is going to move north to places that have plenty of water. And the ideal place to be dairying 50 years from now is going to be in Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta (Canada) because the growing season for crops will be six to eight weeks longer,” Britt said.
Big farms will be expected to recycle water multiple times before it's discharged into the environment. The nutrients and energy from manure could be captured and reused.
"There's going to be a natural push by the public and the government to insist that we don't contaminate our groundwater," Britt said.
But a changing climate is also complicating the problem.
Weather models for Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest have found that warmer temperatures help keep higher volumes of moisture in the atmosphere, leading to increased frequency and intensity of rainfall and snow, which can wash pollutants into waterways.
Agriculture accounts for much of a key pollutant — phosphorus — that is entering the Fox River basin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
It comes in the form of soil, commercial fertilizer and liquefied manure that send stalks of corn and other crops soaring but wreaks havoc when there's too much and it washes into waterways.
Even though Green Bay contains less than 2% of the total water volume of Lake Michigan, it represents one-third of the entire nutrient runoff that flows into the lake, a situation that revs up algae blooms and damages the bay’s ecology.
“I think that we need to accept and acknowledge our share of the problem,” said Don Niles, who milks 3,000 cows in Casco in Kewaunee County, a hotbed in the clash over industrial farms.
Niles is a founder of Peninsula Pride Farms, which was formed in 2016 in Kewaunee and southern Door counties and is one of a growing number of farmer-led groups that are promoting conservation strategies in watersheds across the state.
“We have to know and come to grips with the problem," he said. "Clearly, we in agriculture are not the whole cause of water contamination. But we are a significant contributor.”
Burning through their equity
The fallout in Wisconsin's dairy industry continues even as the milk price has improved some this year. As of March 1, there were 7,228 dairy herds in the state, down more than 3,200 from only six years earlier.
Many remaining dairy farmers have burned through their farm equity and credit to remain in business. Often, at least one family member works an off-farm job to put groceries on the table or pay for health insurance. Some work double shifts, farming during the day then heading to a local factory for the night. It's exhausting, but it keeps families in agriculture and preserves a cherished way of life.
Smaller dairy operations can still survive, but only if their operating costs are low enough or they have a unique product that fetches a higher price, said Steven Deller, an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s like, can you co-exist with a Walmart? Yes, you can. But you have to change.”
One of the best ways? "Make sure there are off-farm employment opportunities," Deller said. "It keeps the family afloat, and therefore it keeps the farm afloat” as farmers try new paths.
This year, with $8.8 million in state funding, three UW System schools — Platteville, River Falls and Madison — launched plans for a Dairy Innovation Hub that's expected to create an advanced dairy management academy and improve labs and farms devoted to research.
The hub is looking out 10 or 20 years on "substantial innovations" for the industry, said Scott Rankin, chairman of the food science department at UW-Madison. "The small and medium-size producer is on everybody's mind in these discussions."
UW-Platteville has a 400-acre research farm with a 200-cow dairy herd. It's installing robotic milking machines so that dairy science students can learn by using the latest technologies.
“We are not going to come in and save the farms ourselves. But we are going to help them with the intellectual support they need and we’re going to be the source of the workforce — the people who will manage these farms,” said UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields.
The chancellor said there wasn't much that could be done about small dairy farms already lost. “We can’t sort of resurrect them. But we can make the future dairy farmers much more adaptable and responsive to the cycles in the industry."
A continuing investment
At the same time, Wisconsin leaders have continued to invest heavily in dairy, even sending trade missions to Vietnam to promote products. They may be encouraging diversification, but they're not walking away from a $45 billion industry.
"I think we should be America's Dairyland and other things," Shields said.
Steve Kelm, a dairy science professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, said he's confident dairy farmers will develop new revenue streams inside and outside the industry.
“In California, that was almond trees, walnut trees and grapes in the Central Valley. Wisconsin is going to be similar in that regard, whether it’s ginseng and things adapted to our environment, or berries, or raising dairy beef cattle,” Kelm said.
Wisconsin's remaining dairy farm families are remarkably resilient. They weathered the Great Depression and the milk strikes of 1933. They've toughed it out through numerous downturns, recessions, poor crop years, trade disputes.
“I wouldn’t bet against anyone who, for the last four years, has gotten up at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day to milk cows and provide for their family the best they can,” Kelm said.
What's been different about the recent downturn has been its duration, five years, and its severity — the highest number of dairy farm losses in Wisconsin, on a percentage basis, going all the way back to the Great Depression.
"Give yourself permission to think differently about the future," said Jack Uldrich, a dairy futurist from Minneapolis.
"The one thing I say as a futurist is, if your idea doesn't sound crazy, you're not thinking hard enough. If it sounds plausible, it's already happening."