Dairy farms are iconic in the state of Wisconsin.
Such picturesque settings grace calendars, coffee mugs and other promotional paraphernalia. The dairy cow is the official “state domestic animal,” and we pride ourselves on being “America’s Dairyland.”
Unfortunately, the small, family-run dairy farm is becoming an endangered species. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection reported that the state lost 500 dairy farms last year and that the total has fallen more than 20 percent over the past five years. Slightly more than 8,800 dairy herds were licensed at the start of this year. Nevertheless production remains steady.
“The growth is really in the medium- to large-size dairy operations,” Steven Deller, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at UW-Madison told The Associated Press. “The growth in those sectors and the increase in productivity of being a bigger operation, the volume of milk is actually not being affected by this.”
• • •
The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture reports that more than 90 percent of farms in the U.S. are “small,” which is defined as having a gross income of $250,000 or less. That percentage, however, is slipping.
“These farms, most of which are family-owned and operated, confront considerable challenges due to current trends, such as increased movement into cities, an aging population, farm consolidation and changing weather patterns,” reads the NIFA website.
Having fewer small farms brings up a number of concerns, not the least of which is the trend’s impact on rural areas. Family farms often are the backbone of Wisconsin communities with smaller populations.
“Less farms, less number of kids going to schools, less number of people who are buying inputs and so forth, less number of people to serve on school boards and church councils, etc.,” Kevin Bernhardt, UW-Platteville agribusiness professor, said in an AP story. “Less farms out there is not necessarily all negative, but it certainly has impacts on the rural community.”
• • •
Jenni Patnode writes a blog under the banner “Faith. Family. Farming.”
An entry last summer noted that she and her husband, Weston, were shuttering operations at their fourth-generation family dairy farm near Arkansaw. The column also was run in the publication “Wisconsin State Farmer.”
“Small dairy farms just don’t work anymore,” Jenni wrote in her emotional blog.
“I have a feeling a lot of small family-owned dairies have sat at this same fork in the road. I have a feeling there are a lot of conversations around the kitchen table, while staring at piles of bills, about what the next move is.
“I have a feeling there are a lot of sleepless nights, pits in their stomachs, and never-ending tears trying to decide which path to choose. To expand the family farm for another generation, or to sell the cows and walk away. It’s a hard decision.”
In a later blog, Jenni wrote that she had started a nonprofit venture and her husband was working in construction. The impact of closing the farm, however, remained evident.
“That was hard on our family,” she wrote.
There are developments that have helped some small farms. A rising interest in local and organic foods has been a positive, and specialty crops can be an option.
Nevertheless, the Patnodes’ story is one that’s becoming all too common in the Badger State.