“Reality.” It’s a word I’ve run across lately more than I’d like.
The reality is, or so I’ve been told, that little can be done to save the hundreds of dairy farmers who are going out of business and being wiped from the landscape of America’s Dairyland. The reality is that farms that have been in families for generations are being sold off, piece by piece. Farms that once supported a family can no longer pay the bills on milk prices that have been in the trough for nearly five years. Meanwhile, farm debt and bankruptcies, farmer suicides and rural mental health issues are all on the rise, and our Main Streets are dying.
In 2018, Wisconsin lost nearly 700 dairy herds, according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that across America, 2,731 (or 6.5 percent) of licensed dairy farms were lost from 2017 to 2018.
As consumers, farmers, farm organizations, local leaders and elected officials, are we willing to accept this ongoing loss of family farms? Or can we learn to work together and organize for the greater good?
The Dairy Together Road Show, being organized by National Farmers and Farmers Unions organizations across the country, is bringing farmers and others in the dairy industry together to reshape that reality. The series, which kicked off last week at the WPS Farm Show in Oshkosh, will present research-based solutions to rebuild a viable dairy economy for family farms and rural communities.
What factors are leading us down the road of family farm loss? An antiquated federal market order system that no longer serves the purpose it was intended for when implemented nearly a century ago. Prices that are crippled under the weight of an increasingly vertically integrated industry and production that no longer balances supply with demand. Yes, even as we lose farms at an alarming rate and milk prices continue the long slog, milk production booms onward, unthrottled. The USDA recently announced a milk production forecast of 219.7 billion pounds for 2019, an increase of more than 2 billion pounds over 2018 production.
On top of that, exports are not keeping pace with long-touted promises, particularly given the impact of recent tariffs on agricultural commodities. The American farmer is learning we cannot export our way out of flooded markets.
Last, but certainly not least, growing consolidation, particularly in the meatpacking, seed and agrochemical industries, are leaving farmers with fewer options and slashed profits.
Wisconsin Farmers Union does not believe that this new “reality” is inevitable. We believe family farm agriculture is vital to the economic and social health of our rural communities. We believe more farmers on the land results in a more stable and secure food supply. We’re not willing to sit back and accept that “consolidation is inevitable” or “it’s too late to turn the tide.”
The Dairy Together Road Show will be looking beyond milk labeling, increasing exports and dairy insurance plans to long-term solutions. We’ll also present a plan for short-term emergency relief.
At the heart of the Road Show will be information on National Farmers Union’s two-tiered program proposal as well as the “Analyses of Selected Dairy Programs to Reduce Volatility in Milk Prices and Farm Income,” which was conducted by Mark Stephenson from the University of Wisconsin and Chuck Nicholson from Cornell University. The research backs these programs’ ability to:
• Increase net farm operating income.
• Increase average milk price.
• Reduce volatility.
• Reduce rate of farm losses.
• Reduce government expenditures.
Fellow farmers, farm organization leaders, ag lenders, cooperative leaders and others who depend on the business of farmers — I implore you to attend one of these meetings. Any meaningful dairy reform is going to take a strong coalition pushing for change, and family farmers cannot continue to wait. It’s time for us to “Pull Together” and decide what reality we really want for our family farms and rural communities.
RSVP to attend these free events. The remaining Dairy Together Road Show meeting in Wisconsin will be from noon to 2:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4, at the UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm, Platteville. Lunch is included. RSVP at dairytogether.com or call 715-723-5561.
Other dates and locations include April 3 in Brattleboro, Vt.; April 9 in St. Johns, Mich.; April 16 in Greenwald, Minn.; April 29 in Modesto, Calif.; and May 2 in Clovis, N.M.
For more about the effort, www.dairytogether.com.
Wondering what else you can do to engage on these issues? Check out the www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/events page or WFU on Facebook for more about upcoming value-added dairy workshop opportunities (with scholarships available).
Danielle Endvick is communications director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.