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Story Publication logo May 21, 2019

‘Struggling to Tread Water’: Dairy Farmers Are Caught in an Economic System With No Winning Formula

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Dairy farms—Wisconsin's economic engines—have been decimated in recent years due to decreased demand...

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Emily Harris, from left, and her wife, Brandi Harris, talk with cattle buyer Ed Flood while their young livestock eats one last time before being loaded onto a trailer for transport to farms in Indiana and New York. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.
Emily Harris, from left, and her wife, Brandi Harris, talk with cattle buyer Ed Flood while their young livestock eats one last time before being loaded onto a trailer for transport to farms in Indiana and New York. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

MONROE, Wisconsin—One by one, Emily and Brandi Harris removed the leather collars from their Jersey dairy cows as the final round of milking on their farm wound down.

They spoke little as the cows quietly munched on organic hay, a milking-time ritual at Wylymar Farms for the better part of a decade. Brandi lingered with the cows, giving her "babies” some extra attention. A barn cat, Arnold, took it all in from his perch above the milking stanchions.

Emily reached for a cigarette, something she’d sworn off — but not too far off.

"It's been so stressful for the last year," she said. 

Outside the century-old barn, the wind picked up and rain started to come down, a fitting backdrop for the end of yet another Wisconsin dairy operation. 

As if on cue, a pickup truck with New York license plates pulled into the farmstead, hauling a livestock trailer. The driver came to a stop, then backed down a muddy hill to the barn. 

Ed Flood, a cattle buyer for 45 years, was there to pick up the cows.

More farms calling it quits

A worldwide surplus of milk has driven down the price farmers receive to the point where many have lost money for months, or even several years, at a time. 

Nearly 3,000 U.S. dairy farms folded in 2018, about a 6.5 percent decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

Emily Harris takes a final look at most of her herd as the truck leaves to carry the herd to new farms. Emily and her wife, Brandi Harris, sold their cows and gave up dairy farming. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.
Emily Harris takes a final look at most of her herd as the truck leaves to carry the herd to new farms. Emily and her wife, Brandi Harris, sold their cows and gave up dairy farming. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Wisconsin lost nearly 700 last year — almost two a day — as even dairy farmers used to enduring hard times called it quits in a downturn now headed into its fifth year.

The fallout continues as farmers, on the cusp of spring planting, decide whether to invest in seed, chemicals, fertilizer and other supplies needed to raise the crops they feed to their cattle. More than 300 Wisconsin dairy farms shut down between January and May, including 90 — three a day — in April alone.

Some will find the decision is out of their hands as banks refuse to extend them credit. 

“It’s enough to test even the most optimistic farmer limping out to the fields,” said Ronald Wirtz, regional outreach director for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, which regulates banks in parts of six states, including northwest Wisconsin, and keeps close tabs on agricultural lending trends. 

In 2018, for the third straight year, Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies. The state's smaller average farm size, particularly in dairy, is at least partly the reason, Wirtz said. 

The farm economy in the Upper Midwest "might generously be described as struggling to tread water," he added. 

Some dairy farmers say they've been getting around $15 for every hundred pounds of milk they produce — roughly 12 gallons — but their costs are between $17 and $22.  Many families have exhausted their savings and credit to remain in business; a large number have at least one non-farm income to help meet the needs of their families. 

“If you’re 100 percent dependent on farm income, you’re being squeezed really bad,” said Mark Stephenson, director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

For all the rural romanticism attached to it, dairy farming has long been a demanding business. Cows must be milked twice a day, 365 days a year, regardless of milk prices or farm costs. 

Today, family dairy farms are at the mercy of trade wars, economies of scale and a complex, often opaque pricing system. Farmers don't know what they'll be paid until weeks after their milk leaves the farm. Sometimes the only way to stay in business is to put off much-needed farm improvements and produce ever-higher amounts of milk — which adds to the surplus. The economic forces are more powerful and unforgiving than ever.

“If this downturn is the new normal, then what’s the endgame? There’s not a day goes by when I’m not worried about this whole situation because it’s not sustainable," said Hans Breitenmoser Jr., who milks 350 cows on his dairy farm in Lincoln County.

Breitenmoser has been through tough times, including a fire in 2014 that destroyed his century-old barn. 

“We are more or less wired to roll with the punches,” he said of dairy farmers. “But when the whole economics of the industry have changed, and not for the better, you just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore.”

Lean times on the farm

At the kitchen table of their 1890s farmhouse in Jefferson County, the Mess family mulled the finances of their dairy operation, Mesa Farms. 

Clem and Cathy Mess along with their son, Patrick, and his wife, Carrie, milk 100 cows on a farm Clem Mess purchased after returning from the Vietnam War in 1971. For years, the farm generated enough income to provide his family a comfortable living, though Clem says he and Cathy worked "morning, noon and night" to make that happen.

The Mess family, Carrie Mess, from left, with her 10-month-old son, Ben; husband, Patrick, with 3-year-old son Silas; and Cathy and Clem Mess, gather around their kitchen table on their farm in Watertown. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.
The Mess family, Carrie Mess, from left, with her 10-month-old son, Ben; husband, Patrick, with 3-year-old son Silas; and Cathy and Clem Mess, gather around their kitchen table on their farm in Watertown. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Now, old buildings and equipment remain in service years after they should have been replaced.

Under better circumstances, the Mess family would have built a new barn at a cost of about $750,000. They also would have spent several hundred thousand dollars on robotic milking equipment and a manure storage system to keep the farm efficient and in sync with better ways of doing things. 

But these are not better circumstances.

Last year, the Mess family purchased $167,194 in cattle feed, in addition to the feed grown on the farm, and spent $88,351 on hired labor. They also spent $44,505 on milk hauling and more than $30,000 on repairs to buildings and machinery — and that was just to hold things together.

All told, the farm had more than $603,000 in expenses for the year and net income of about $19,000. 

The family is thankful it didn’t borrow heavily to make improvements when milk prices were higher and banks were eager to extend credit. “If we had pulled the trigger and signed the papers then, we’d be done now because there’s no way we could make the payments,” Patrick said.

He and Carrie would like to leave Mesa Farms to their two young children someday, provided they want it and the farm is still in business. But they are realistic about the disruption going on in dairy farming.

Clem Mess bought Mesa Farms in 1971 after returning from the Vietnam War. Last year, the farm only had about $19,000 in net income. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.
Clem Mess bought Mesa Farms in 1971 after returning from the Vietnam War. Last year, the farm only had about $19,000 in net income. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

“As times change, farms have to change, too. We love the idyllic red barn with the stanchions and cows. I grew up with that. But the reality is it’s not the business model you can make a profit on now,” Patrick said. “Businesses in town change, too. You no longer have the seamstress, the cobbler and the blacksmith.”

Recently, Mesa Farms lost a truck and a feed mixer in a fire. With insurance coverage not known at the time, and the cost of replacing that equipment potentially reaching $125,000, the Mess family pulled an old feed mixer out of the weeds and put it back in service.

You question yourself on a weekly basis. It’s like watching a train coming straight at you and you hope it switches tracks before you’re run over.

Patrick Mess

It’s the kind of improvisation farmers do regularly these days. 

Ultimately, insurance covered part of the replacement costs, but the episode reinforced how close to the edge they operate. “If we hadn't had that (spare) mixer, and our operating loan had been maxed out, the truck fire could have meant the end of the farm," Carrie said. 

Patrick gave up a $60,000-a-year job to farm full time. He loves the work, though it takes a lot out of him physically and emotionally. Sometimes he thinks about returning to a non-farm job where he wouldn't have to worry so much about how next month's bills will be paid. 

"You question yourself on a weekly basis," he said. “It’s like watching a train coming straight at you and you hope it switches tracks before you’re run over.” 

Losing money every day

With the sale of their 40-cow herd of Jerseys, Emily and Brandi Harris shut down their organic dairy operation. Saddled with roughly $400,000 in farm debt, they kept the barn, their house and their 92 acres of farmland.

Emily, a fourth-generation farmer and U.S. Navy veteran, took a job as a heavy equipment operator. Brandi, a city kid who had come to feel at home sharing her partner’s dream, continues in her administrative job at Blackhawk Technical College in Monroe.

“I wanted to milk organic Jersey cows in the worst way," Emily said. "It took me 10 years to get them, and I got to do it for nearly 10 years.”

Some dairy farmers have turned to organic operations — using feed grown without chemicals and pesticides — to get paid more for their products. But it can take three years for even a small farm to make the transition, and what had been a profitable niche has become big business, attracting mega-sized farms in places like West Texas.

The resulting ocean of organic milk has sunk some farmers’ prices and hopes for getting through the dairy crisis.

At one time, Emily said, her farm was profitable. Then her milk price fell by about a third under a new contract that went into effect May 1. With no other milk buyer to be found, the farm was losing money every day she and Brandi remained in dairy. 

In a scenario repeated across the state, it was no longer a matter of how Wylymar Farms would endure another year of financial hardship, but how Emily and Brandi would exit the business quickly and with the least pain and financial loss.

Trying other ventures

Just as the Harrises tried to find success by farming organically, some farmers have turned to other ventures to make money, such as an on-farm creamery or cheese-making operation. It’s a lot of additional work and expense that comes with its own risks, said George Crave of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Co. of Waterloo.

His operation started more than 40 years ago with 57 cows in a rented barn; today, it uses milk from 1,500 cows on the family farm. 

Crave is a licensed cheesemaker. His wife, Debbie, is president of the family business and spent 16 years in marketing at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Crave Brothers has been making cheese on the farm for 18 years.

“The first couple of years were very trying, but we made it through and found some flagship (retail) companies to work with. That’s what it takes,” George Crave said.

Now the market is saturated with artisan cheesemakers, and it's tough to break in. 

“I don’t envision too many banks having ears for that type of conversation right now," he said. "There are a lot of big companies making very good artisan dairy products, and they have everything in place to go to the marketplace with them.”

This spring, even as supermarkets were selling cheese at high prices, dairy producers were getting only about 25 percent of the average retail price — the lowest level since April 2012, according to the American Dairy Coalition based in Green Bay. 

If dairy farmers could get an extra 20 cents from every pound of cheese that sells for $5 per pound at the grocery store, it would keep many of them from going broke, Crave said.

"It's not a very good business model to have prosperity on one end of the supply chain and poverty on the other end," he said. "That's not sustainable."

Quantum change in dairy industry

Rewind five years and rising global milk sales had sent prices soaring. 

“We were in our heyday. Farmers had some money in their pockets" and were pumping out record amounts of milk, said Kevin Bernhardt, an agriculture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. 

China had stepped up its purchases of powdered milk from the U.S. and Europe. In early 2014, U.S. cheese exports had reached a record high fueled by a 100 percent increase to China, a 142 percent increase to Australia and a 48 percent increase to Mexico.

It takes about a gallon of milk to make a pound of hard cheese, so Wisconsin dairy farmers were running at full throttle to keep up with demand.

Then markets tumbled. 

China realized it had imported too much milk powder. Russia, for political reasons, banned most food imports from the United States and Western Europe. The domestic market was awash in milk, and it didn't help that consumer tastes were changing to favor a wide range of other beverages such as sports drinks. 

Agriculture, like other businesses, is cyclical. In dairy that has usually meant a year of high prices, followed by a year of average prices, then a year of poor prices. 

"All farmers know the good times end and the bad times come," said Paul Mitchell, director of the Renk Agribusiness Institute at UW-Madison. 

Still, milk production kept climbing, urged on by government programs that bolstered farm expansions and encouraged dairy farmers to step up their game. 

As production has remained high, even with the loss of farms, prices haven't rebounded much. Some economists predict an uptick later this year, but there's no clear end in sight to the devastating downturn. 

"There has been a quantum change in the dairy industry. We are no longer seeing the typical cycles of high and low prices," said Richard Bylsma, dairy sales director for the National Farmers Organization, a trade group based in Ames, Iowa. 

How the downturn took hold

Gary Sipiorski, dairy development manager for Vita Plus, a Madison-based livestock nutrition company, opened up the financial records of another Wisconsin farm — with the owner’s permission — to show how the downturn took hold.

The farm milked 500 cows and supported three generations of a family. The first generation, a couple who started it in 1953 with a dozen Holsteins, has moved into a retirement home. Their children, nearing retirement years, have been phasing out of the operation. Their grandchildren — the third generation — wanted a bigger stake.  

In addition to the family, six employees relied on the farm for income. Some had worked there for more than 20 years.

In 2014, the farm had $939,000 in net income, a highly profitable year because the milk price didn't tumble until the fall. By the end of 2015, the farm’s net income was down 47 percent, and by the end of 2016 it was down 78 percent.

With farm milk prices eroding steadily, the dairy operation had a projected loss of $150,000 in 2018 as the price it received was no longer covering the cost of production.

“How do you recoup that? Either you don’t pay your bills or you borrow more money to keep operating. As each month ticks by … equity slips away from the balance sheets,” Sipiorski said.

Even the cows have lost value. As recently as 2017, dairy cows sold for about $1,500 or more in Wisconsin. Today they sometimes don't even fetch $1,000, and farmers who used to rely on selling heifers and calves to supplement their income have lost much of that revenue. 

Bull calves aren't even worth enough to raise; they are often killed at birth, a practice farmers and non-farmers alike hate.

Many lenders, Sipiorski said, aren't lowering the value of cows as collateral on loans as much as they could. "They don't want to trash the farmer's balance sheet," he said.

Still, rural banks are under increased scrutiny from regulators worried that farmers won't be able to repay what they owe. It's not unusual for even a small dairy farm to have $500,000 or more in debt, and for bigger farms, it's in the millions. 

"Every year of poor prices makes it more difficult for the farmer to make payments, and for the banker to keep extending credit — even though both of them want to," Wirtz said.

In Newport, Sarah Lloyd says this could be the last year for the dairy farm that she and her husband run. The farm near Wisconsin Dells has been in their family for more than a century.

Sarah has a doctorate in rural sociology from UW-Madison; her dissertation examined agricultural sustainability in rural communities.

“We milk 350 cows and we’re going broke,” she said. “And I am tired of being told, as a farmer, that I just have to tighten my belt and be a better business person. I cannot make a living if I have to interact with a market that’s stacked against me."

'A system falling apart at the seams'

The route that milk takes from the farm to the grocery store is fairly straightforward. And fresh milk, unlike corn, soybeans or other farm commodities, can't be placed in storage while farmers wait for higher prices.

Those prices are based on a complicated patchwork system of formulas and rules dating back to the 1930s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets minimum prices based on the value of the products made from milk. There are four categories, or classes, in the system. Class I milk is for beverage products. Class II is for soft dairy items, such as yogurt, ice cream, sour cream and cottage cheese. Class III is for hard cheeses. Class IV is for butter and powder products such as nonfat dry milk.

Calculating the prices begins with valuing cheese, dry whey, nonfat dry milk and butter using weekly average wholesale marketplace trends monitored by the USDA. The actual minimum price received by farmers is a blend of prices weighted by the percentage of milk used in each class.

Farmers often receive premiums over the minimum price based on the value of various milk components, such as the amount of butterfat and protein.

The full picture includes optional programs in which farmers can lock in advance prices through "forward contracting," thereby reducing risks but limiting the upside should market prices rise more than expected. Farmers also can purchase insurance that helps when the gap between milk prices and livestock feed costs widens to a certain point. 

The process, fraught with risks and rewards, leaves most farmers frustrated in not knowing what they'll be paid until a month after their milk is shipped to the processor. It even bewilders dairy economists at times. 

“If farmers could truly understand how and why they got paid what they did, then we could go forward and work on changing it. But the way it is now … it’s a system falling apart at the seams,” Patrick Mess said.

There is little consensus on how to reform the system.

Some large farming operations collect "enormous sums" in government subsidies and crop insurance, but for average farmers, subsidies are just one of many factors that might keep their heads above water, said Kara O'Connor, government relations director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a Chippewa Falls-based trade group.

"The farmers I know would rather receive fair prices for their products at the farm gate than having to live with the stress of volatile markets and the unknowns of whether emergency relief and insurance will kick in," O'Connor said.

While there is a sense of urgency, there are no easy solutions in sight.

"Is there a policy change that could save a dairy farmer who's on the edge right now? It probably doesn't happen that fast, unfortunately," said Karen Gefvert, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm group. 

'We’ve been producing too much'

With anywhere from 1,000 cows or more, large farms benefit from economies of scale — meaning they can negotiate lower prices for necessities such as animal feed and are better financed to weather a downturn. They have lower costs of production, per hundred pounds of milk, than most smaller farms. 

The production per cow is amazing. Cows that were exceptional 50 years ago — today they'd be called 'hamburger'.

Richard Bylsma, dairy sales director for the National Farmers Organization

What's more, farmers who have invested heavily in their milking operation can’t afford to just turn off the spigot, and the bigger the farm, the bigger the investment. As profit margins shrink, they squeeze out ever-higher amounts of milk to cover their costs — even if it adds to the surplus. 

“It’s simple economics. We’ve been producing too much,” said Bylsma with the National Farmers Organization. 

Some big farms have closed in Michigan, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. Overall, though, the nation's milk supply remains high as cows taken from farms shutting down are moved to farms that are expanding. Compounding the problem, an average cow today produces about four times more milk than it would have in the 1950s, thanks to advancements in genetics and feed science.

"The production per cow is amazing. Cows that were exceptional 50 years ago — today they'd be called ‘hamburger,’ " Bylsma said. 

Some in the dairy industry predict that less than 20 years from now about half of today’s dairy farms will have disappeared. That would put the total number, nationwide, at around 18,000. Wisconsin alone had more dairy farms than that as recently as 2001. 

All of this comes amid warning signs throughout U.S. agriculture. The average age of the American farmer is now 57.

"We've got older farmers, fewer farms and fewer farm families on the land. None of that is positive for American agriculture or our rural communities," said Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union.

The recently released U.S. Census of Agriculture showed that more than half of American farms had negative cash farm income in 2017. Many of them were smaller operations barely hanging on. The average farm income, including farms of all sizes, was $43,053.

“Since 1970 we have already lost two-thirds of our smaller family farms. At the same time, we have seen a 268% increase in the number of farms with more than 2,000 cows. That’s a dramatic change in our industry,” Bylsma said.

“The stress levels on our farms has never been this intense," he added. 

Bylsma places part of the blame on programs that encouraged farmers to ramp up milk production more than markets could bear. 

“It's accelerated the demise of the family farm,” he said.  

In 2012, for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced an incentive plan to produce, as a state, 30 billion pounds of milk a year by 2020 — a 15% increase. The state offered farmers grants for updating their business and required them to put up their own money as well.

Dairy farmers reached 30 billion pounds in 2016 — four years ahead of schedule.

By then, the market had turned and many family farms were in trouble. 

Now, Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer from Westby and president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, worries that dairy is headed the way of pork and poultry, where much of the livestock is owned or controlled by a few corporations.

“For us, as a nation, do we want to see that? It scares the heck out of me,” he said.

Tariffs worsen crisis

The dairy crisis worsened last year when China and Mexico imposed steep tariffs on U.S. dairy products in retaliation for President Donald Trump slapping tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel.

Trump's criticisms of Mexico, the largest foreign market for American dairy products, heightened trade tensions. When the president threatened to close the Mexican border, it alarmed former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, now president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. 

Closing the border would be a "gut punch" that could set the dairy industry back 20 years, Vilsack said. 

More than one in seven days’ worth of U.S. milk ends up in products sold in foreign countries. Trade wars, and the failure of the United States, Mexico and Canada to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement — meant to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement — worries the industry.

"We shipped $1.4 billion in dairy products to Mexico last year, which accounts for more than one-fourth of U.S. dairy exports," Vilsack said. "Without a trade treaty with Mexico in place, the dairy industry would be hard-pressed to maintain and expand these sales, as our competitors in Europe are expected to implement a lucrative trade deal with Mexico by next year."

Wisconsin farmers have received more than $10 million in payments from a Trump program meant to help producers of milk, pork, soybeans, corn and other commodities who have seen prices tumble in trade disputes.

That's about $725 for a 55-cow dairy which probably lost between $36,000 and $48,000 in income in 2018 from low milk prices, according to Wisconsin Farmers Union. A 290-cow dairy stood to receive $4,905 but would have lost several hundred thousand dollars in income.

The Mess family said the payment they received didn't even cover 10% of what they had to borrow to remain in business. 

“We want trade, not aid,” Carrie Mess said.

No one argues that trade isn't important for dairy farmers, but some worry about depending too much on it. 

“We are deluding ourselves if we think that exports alone will forge a viable future for America’s dairy farm families,” said Von Ruden with Wisconsin Farmers Union.

“We’ve had 25 years of steadily increasing trade and look where it’s gotten us: 352 Wisconsin dairy farms lost in 2016, 465 Wisconsin dairy farms lost in 2017 and 691 Wisconsin dairy farms lost in 2018," he said.

"The ‘more exports’ mantra is not getting the job done for America’s Dairyland. The sooner we start exploring some other options, the sooner we’ll start to turn the tide of devastating farm losses in Wisconsin and all across the country.” 

Insurmountable hardships

Ed Flood, the livestock broker who came for the Wylymar Farms' cows, lives in Ellenburg Center near the junction of New York, Vermont and Canada. Lately, he's been to scores of dairy farms in New York and Pennsylvania where farmers facing insurmountable hardships have called it quits.

This was his first time in Wisconsin. He bought the cows from Emily and Brandi Harris sight unseen, something he'd never done before.

"I was scared to death, to be honest with you. But these gals did a heck of a job with these cows and I just had a place for them," he said. “It turned out well.” 

That’s a matter of perspective.

The barn at Wylymar Farms was built in the late 1800s, then expanded in the 1940s and again in the '70s. Its roof has started to go bad, a death knell for some old farm buildings.

The farm's newest tractor is more than 50 years old, is nearly worn out and there's no money for a replacement.

"A new tractor would cost $250,000. That's never going to happen here," Emily Harris said. Even after the cows are gone, “it's going to be really tight for us just to keep the farm."

Rural economy feels the strain

Wisconsin still has about 1.3 million cows spread across nearly 8,000 dairy farms, more than any other state. The dairy industry contributes $43.4 billion to Wisconsin's economy each year, or more than $82,500 per minute.

Dairy farming supports 215,000 full-time jobs in the state, according to industry figures, enough to fill Miller Park, Camp Randall Stadium and Lambeau Field at the same time.

Still, the financial strain that farmers are under now has been felt throughout the rural economy. Farm implement dealerships, hardware stores, animal health clinics, car dealerships, restaurants, all kinds of shops on Main Street suffer when some of their customers — like the Harrises and the Mess family — close their wallets. 

Right now, dairy farmers are only buying what they absolutely need, said Dan Stroinski, owner of D&J Farm and Home, a hardware store and farm supplies business in Thorp, a city of about 1,700 in Clark County. 

“I don’t have to extend them credit," he said. "They just aren’t buying.”

Thorp has 35 colorful “Amazing Grazing Cow” statues throughout town and is the home of Marieke Gouda cheese, which has won global honors.

Clark County also is the home of the Town of Colby, where Colby cheese was created in 1885. Nearly half of the jobs in the county are agriculture-related.

“If farmers are hurting, other businesses are hurting,” said Richard Halopka, a University of Wisconsin-Extension agent in the county. 

He quit full-time farming after having too many aches and pains from milking cows and doing other farm chores.

“I was only in my early thirties, but my body was wearing out,” he said.

Halopka endured the farm crisis of the 1980s, when thousands of U.S. farms were wiped out in one of the worst periods in agriculture since the Great Depression.

“We saw a lot of the same things then that we’re seeing now, such as farmer suicides,” he said.

He cautions farmers not to let their emotions get the best of them when it comes to fighting for a farm that doesn't have much of a future. 

“You always hear that farming is a way of life. Well, no, farming is a business that everybody in a family is involved in. But it is a business,” he said.

Halopka also gets frustrated when farmers wait too long to reach out for help. “They're just tough people … but often when I get a call from someone, it’s two years too late,” he said.

Trying to buck the odds

Bruce Drinkman, 56, is one of those farmers for whom time ran out.

Yet today, nearly a decade after losing his Glenwood City dairy farm, he’s turning back the clock with a new farm he’s named “Tryin' Again Dairy.”

It’s only 30 minutes from his old place, "Desperation Acres." He and his wife, Mari, used her retirement fund to pay off loans and keep that farm afloat when it hit a rough patch, but it wasn’t enough. The bank foreclosed on it a few days before Christmas 2010.

Drinkman worked on another dairy farm for a while but quit after the owner complained about him taking three weeks off to care for Mari, who was struggling with leukemia.

“I just walked away,” he said.

Mari died Christmas Eve 2017 at age 59.

Earlier this year, Drinkman’s 30-year-old son Joshua was killed in an accident at the lumber yard where he worked.

Bruce Drinkman and his companion, Betty Jo Johnson, stand in the hayloft designed to hold about 10,000 bales of hay at the farm in Ridgeland. Drinkman, a former dairy farmer, purchased this small farm in Dunn County. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.
Bruce Drinkman and his companion, Betty Jo Johnson, stand in the hayloft designed to hold about 10,000 bales of hay at the farm in Ridgeland. Drinkman, a former dairy farmer, purchased this small farm in Dunn County. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Now, emerging from some of the darkest periods in his life, he’s returning to what he knows best.

“I am a touch nervous,” Drinkman said. “But it’s going back to what I truly know, and the fact of the matter is I survived almost 40 years of milking cows, so I couldn’t have been all that bad at it.”

Drinkman is starting with 40 acres, 30 cows and a farmhouse that needs a lot of repairs. But his mortgage is only $120,000. 

“Unfortunately, too many farmers are deeper in debt than they should be right now,” he said. “And mostly it’s through no fault of their own because they’ve had to borrow against their equity to keep going.”

He's lined up a milk buyer and, aside from startup costs, he expects the farm to break even or net a small profit this year.

“It’s make-or-break time for a lot of people. Many farmers are backed in a corner now and are being told ‘Which way do you want to lose your pants? One leg at a time or all in one shot?’”

Venting frustration and moving on

For Emily and Brandi Harris, the way out of the corner was to sell their cows on Craigslist.

Emily wanted to avoid the public spectacle of a farm auction. 

"I didn't want a bunch of rednecks poking around here a week early looking at everything," she said. "With two women on the farm, that would be a hot mess." 

A farmer from East Troy wanted the cows but couldn't find a milk buyer.

And so early this month, Emily and Brandi helped load most of their herd onto Ed Flood’s trailer. About a mile up the road, the cows were transferred to a double-decker rig for the trip to dairy farms in Indiana and New York.

Emily vented her frustration over the low milk prices that forced her to quit, even as milk was being trucked in from out of state: "I'm only 10 minutes from a cheese factory and they can't pay me more? It doesn't make any sense."

Brandi had mixed emotions. 

"I will miss the cows themselves, but I don't know that I will miss the amount of work that's involved and the time commitment," she said. On a typical day, she would help Emily with farm chores and then head to her day job. Weekends were filled with more farm work. 

Emily's daily routine typically took 13 hours, often longer during spring planting and fall harvest. Unable to find affordable hired help, she's filled a grain silo herself, dragged logs out of the woods and cut them up for firewood to heat the farmhouse.

Still, she's not complaining about that. 

"I think the part I will miss the most is being self-employed. I am happy here," she said. 

She and Brandi kept a few cows — one too old to make the trip, a couple with bad hooves. They are raising some “family cows" for people who want their own milk. And they will grow some crops for other farmers.

But it's not the same as having a full-time dairy farm.

"I don't know how the transition will go. ... I don't want to have too much time to think about all this right now," Emily said. 

As Ed Flood's truck pulled away, she waved and called out, "Bye babies."

Then she had to get to the bank, cash the check and get on with her life.







two cows


Bringing Stories Home

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