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'A spiral downward': Organic dairy farmer loses family farm after 148 years

ELEVA — Paul Adams thought he had done everything right.

His northern Trempealeau County dairy farm had been certified organic in 2002. He took care of his cattle, his land and his employees. He even had a daughter hoping to eventually take over the farm that had been in his family for 148 years.

But by early March, his barns were empty, his cows were loaded onto trailers headed to Texas and Adams Dairy had joined the growing number of farms forced out of the dairy industry due to unfavorable market conditions in recent years.

“I could not see a way to produce milk cheaper while still taking care of my cattle and employees how I felt was right,” Adams said. “You think, jeepers, you should have done something differently. But you talk to anybody in the industry, and they’re all hurting.”

Adams was cropping about 1,100 acres and milking about 600 cows, but declining organic milk prices and growing debts were catching up with him, and several factors that hit in 2019, including weather difficulties, loss of a bedding supplier and no rebound in the price of milk, made it impossible to continue farming, he said.

“We pushed it as far as we could go,” he said.

Wisconsin lost a total of 818 milk cow herds in 2019, according the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. In the past five years, the state has lost more than 3,000 dairy herds. This year has started off much the same way, with another 64 dairy farmers leaving the business in the first two months of 2020, according to DATCP.

For many years, organic was seen as a bright spot in the dairy industry. But recently organic prices have been declining as well as more milk comes on the market.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic milk production jumped 18.5% in 2016. Because the jump in production eclipsed the growth in market demand, wholesale purchasers of raw organic milk cut prices to farmers by 25 to 30% or more, according to the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group.

Adams said that rapid increase in the amount of organic milk on the market was making it increasingly difficult to find both a steady buyer and a good price for his milk, and on Oct. 31, 2017, Adams was given 60 days notice that a milk contract with their distributor on the East Coast would not be renewed.

“There was so much cheap milk on the East Coast from Plains states large dairies,” Adams said.

Adams was most recently shipping milk with Dairy Farmers of America to Kemps. Before that, the dairy was shipping milk to the East Coast through Amish Country Farms with Scenic Central Co-op.

With the switch to DFA, Adams’ contract went from $38.50 per hundredweight to $29 per hundredweight. As of Dec. 31, 2019, DFA could no longer find a buyer to contract with for milk sales, and the price they were able to get for their milk dropped to $26 per hundredweight.

“They were able to find buyers on a weekly basis,” Adams said. “A couple days it went to conventional in early January.”

At about that same time, loans Adams had with local banks were sold to another financial institution and saw his required payments increase.

“We were concerned what direction things would go when we first lost that contract out east,” Adams said. “If we had to work at a lower-yet price, it was below our break-even, and if it was going lower, it would be impossible to continue.

“We had hoped for a potential rise in milk price when our contract ended of maybe a dollar or two higher. Instead we got no contract and less money and an investment company that wouldn’t work with us.”

Adams took over the family farm from his father in 1979. In 1994, he built a free-stall barn for 360 cows and a milking parlor. He then added a compost barn for calving and another four years ago for breeding age and pregnant heifers.

After switching to organic in 2002, Adams was separating manure solids and liquids and composting manure in windrows. He would also inject liquids into fields so it wasn’t sitting on the surface for weeds.

“We were trying to work with organic as a system, not modifying conventional to be organic,” Adams said. “I saw fantastic results, but then the price of milk dropped so low you couldn’t make it right.

“I was able to be in long enough to prove to myself that was the right way to do it. The quality of the food we produced the last few years — nobody else may realize it — but we’ve got to feel good about it.”

Mary C. Anderson, president of River Country Resource Conservation and Development, said Adams and his farm were a model for how a farm should operate, even during challenging times.

“As a businessman, Paul did everything right,” Anderson said. “When he started his expansion, he paid very close attention to the market. He went to grazing at exactly the right time to lower his cost of production. And he went to organic with an eye to the future.”

Once the price paid for organic milk started to decline, Adams expanded the dairy to its recent level of 600 cows. However, he said, the Driftless Area surrounding his farm is not conducive to the farm getting any larger.

According to the USDA, there are now six organic dairies in Texas that produce more organic milk than the 453 organic dairies in Wisconsin combined. A majority of Adams’ cows and pregnant heifers went to Texas to a farm expanding from 2,200 cows to 3,000, he said.

The Cornucopia Institute has called into question USDA enforcement of grazing rules required of organic dairies, saying, “factory farms, some milking as many as 15,000 cows in desert-like conditions in the Southwest, are defrauding consumers by depriving them of the documented nutritional superiority in pasture-based organic dairy production.”

“I’ve not been able to find anyone who can explain how you can graze 5,000 cows to comply with the organic rules,” Adams said. “When I went organic, I looked at it and thought, ‘I like what this is doing for the soils, the cattle and the product.’ But I also think the difficulty of doing it should keep it Wisconsin-small-farm scale.

“When that was no longer the case, it became a spiral downward.”

With Adams Dairy’s closing, Adams said 21 employees, including Adams and his daughter, Becky, are out of the job. Becky returned to the farm 15 years ago after earning a dairy science degree at UW-Madison and had hoped to continue farming in the future, Adams said.

“She loved the animals,” he said. “Now she’s left with nothing.”

As his prices have been declining over the past couple years, Adams has become more politically active, working to bring attention to his situation and the difficulty many Wisconsin farmers are facing.

“If there aren’t some big changes, Wisconsin is not going to have much dairy left,” Adams said.

Adams said U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, approached him about his story and planned to take the information to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a March 12 Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee hearing. Baldwin planned to question Perdue on dairy farm loss and propose actions that the Trump administration needs to take to support Wisconsin’s agriculture economy.

“Wisconsin farmers are the backbone of our rural economy, but right now they are facing a storm of challenges and President (Donald) Trump’s trade wars have hurt, not helped, our farmers,” Baldwin said. “This administration needs to do better for family farmers in Wisconsin ... .”

Adams said he expects the land and equipment to be sold to cover as much of his debts as possible. While he doesn’t see himself directly involved in farming in the future, he said he plans to continue lobbying legislators until other farmers see some relief.

“With that, I feel like I’ve at least accomplished something,” Adams said. “Maybe I can make a difference for the rest of the farmers in Wisconsin, just telling my story.”

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Maple season off to an early start

Maple trees across the state of Wisconsin have been tapped, sap has started flowing and producers have started outputting gallons upon gallons of sweet syrup as maple season gets underway.

That season kicked off a little earlier than usual for most producers, said Theresa Baroun, executive director of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producer’s Association.

Baroun, who has 1,200 taps and buys from other producers to output 200 gallons of syrup a year at her family’s business in De Pere, said that they tapped two weeks earlier and were on their fifth boiling.

A little over a week into March, they had produced about half of the maple syrup they expected to, Baroun said.

At Pozarski Family Farms in Boyd, sap collection began about three weeks earlier than it has the past couple of years, said Jessica Pozarski, who operates the farm with her husband, Blake.

The Pozarskis, who have about 2,000 taps and try to grow a little every year, had their first cooking two Sundays ago and hoped to improve on the 1,000 gallons of syrup they produced last year, despite encountering a few challenges with the woods so far this year.

Maple season was also off to an early start in Dallas, where A&M Pure Maple Syrup, operated by Andy and Marilyn Humphrey, began cooking down sap about two and a half weeks sooner than previous years.

So far, the Humphreys have cooked down about 10,000 gallons of sap, and with their 3,500 taps and the sap they buy from other local producers, they hope to cook down over 100,000 gallons of sap into 3,300 gallons of finished pure maple syrup.

Like most agricultural endeavors, the success and timing of maple season is dependent on the weather.

For maple producers, temperatures that dip below freezing at night and rise into the mid 30s through 40s are ideal to get the sap flowing.

Recent days with highs in the upper 50s have negatively affected how well the sap has flowed for the Humphreys.

However, unlike many agricultural producers who found disappointment and frustration in a particularly wet fall, Baroun said that the wet autumn was good for producers. Less frost also helped, she said.

An earlier start does have the potential to put producers in a time crunch for tapping, Pozarski said, noting that they try to keep an eye on the extended forecast in order to better prepare to get the taps in in time.

Pozarski said that the season usually lasts about four weeks for them, but that number is conditioned on Mother Nature.

Maple Month, which officially runs from March 15 through April 15, features events throughout the state that allow people to visit maple producers and see everything from tapping to cooking — often with some sweet taste testing thrown in.

The month can be a tradition for maple syrup producers and event attendees alike, Baroun said.

Once a producer gets started, making maple syrup can become “a bit of an addiction,” Pozarski said, noting that their operation has grown a lot since they began collecting sap in metal taps and buckets in 2012.

It’s not uncommon for maple syrup production to start out as a hobby and grow into something more.

Andy Humphrey can trace back to tapping a few trees with his dad for a school project when he was five. Years later he went off on his own to produce syrup, bringing his high school sweetheart and now wife along for ride shortly after.

The Humphreys said that they “love having our customers stop by” and being able to “educate them on every aspect of being a sugarmaker.”

That aspect of maple syrup production has grown as local food movements, farmers’ markets and a desire to link a producer to their product have grown.

“People want to know where their food comes from,” Baroun said.

Real maple syrup also has gotten more attention as people begin to more often turn to natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey instead over products laden with ingredients like corn syrup, Baroun said.

Maple syrup is a “pure, natural product,” Baroun said.

Producers often list maple syrup as a healthier alternative to other sugars. Pozarski noted that they’ve had customers purchase syrup in bulk for use in baking and cooking.

What makes Wisconsin syrup stand out from that which is produced in other maple syrup producing states is the quality of the soil and minerals that feed into the trees, Baroun said.

Pozarski said that each producer’s syrup was a little bit different and that factors such as the location of and terrain surrounding the sugar bush as well as the type of maple tapped and the cooking process could factor into a syrup’s flavor.

Maple Month kicked off March 7 in Manitowoc County at Inthewoods Sugar Bush with the first tree tapping.

Gov. Tony Evers, Alice in Dairyland Abigail Martin and Maple Marketing Intern Rachel Van Deurzen completed the tapping with assistance from Inthewoods Sugar Bush owners Jesse and Margo Wagner.

Evers also read the proclamation officially declaring Maple Month, and several speeches were given before tours started. About 70 people attended the event, which is open to the public and rotates among six districts, Baroun said.

For a list of open houses from maple syrup producers around the state during Maple Month and beyond, visit wismaple.org.

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Long-range forecasts show above average moisture

Farmers across Wisconsin are looking for a bit of a break this year when it comes to precipitation. According to Timm Uhlmann, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Green Bay, the odds are the state won’t be in for another record-breaking year in terms of precipitation.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to normal, he said.

Green Bay has had two record-breaking wet years in a row, Uhlmann said. The 30-year average rainfall in the area is 29.5 inches. In 2018, Green Bay set a record with 39 inches, and 2019 broke that with 48 inches.

“It’s been a wet couple years for Wisconsin, for sure,” Uhlmann said during a March 2 webinar “Weather forecasts: How are they made?” presented by UW-Extension Discovery Farms. “But it’s very unlikely this will set the standard for every year running. We broke the record two years in a row, but the odds of that happening again are less than 1%.

“Which isn’t to say we won’t be above normal again, but the odds that we get near that record again are unlikely. But it is important to acknowledge how abnormally wet it has been.”

Uhlmann pointed to three month outlook maps by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center that show eastern Wisconsin with a greater chance than the rest of the state of seeing above average temperatures over the course of the next three months and the entire state having a chance of above normal precipitation in that same time span.

“This has been predicting a warmer and wetter spring than average,” he said. “This past year was very harsh on the ag community. Unfortunately, through summer, they are expecting wetter than average. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be dry weeks in there as well.”

Uhlmann said climatology summaries show that the average annual precipitation and temperature trends in Wisconsin have been on a gradual increase.

“But that is a climate trend,” he said. “Just because it’s been wetter and warmer as an average doesn’t mean that we can’t see drought or that we won’t see cold days.”

The National Weather Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association under the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The primary roles of NOAA are research and data gathering, and the NWS is the branch of that tasked with issuing watches, warnings and advisories based on weather as well as providing weather forecasts that are updated twice a day, collecting weather and climate data, conducting outreach and research and relay weather-related information to communities.

Wisconsin’s 72 counties are covered by five offices of the National Weather Service.

Uhlmann explained that the weather is what’s happening outside your window right now, while climate is a statistically derived average of what has been seen in the past, and the past 30 to 40 years make up what is considered “normal.”

“Weather and climate are connected. Long-term weather creates what the climate is, but the weather can be very different,” Uhlmann said. “One of the common misconceptions is that you can use one single weather event to define climate.”

Uhlmann said slight errors in computer models and limited surface, atmospheric and satellite data can accumulate, making long-term forecasting difficult.

“A Day 3 forecast relies on what you said happening in Day 2 coming true, which relied on Day 1 coming true,” he said. “If any one of those is off, you start getting further and further off.

“It’s physically possible to give a forecast that’s 50-days long, to run the models out that far and to come up with something that is reasonable from a climate stand-point. However, whether or not it actually comes true is unlikely. Every single day, you’re accumulating a little bit more error.”

Uhlmann said localized events like dry air moving in, causing clouds to evaporate, can have a big effect on overnight lows in late fall and early spring. That would then lead to an adjustment in the following day’s highs, but that adjustment is not always necessary, he said.

“This happens in the hours right before sunrise in areas of north-central Wisconsin, where temperatures will plummet 20 degrees if they clear out just a little bit and a couple hours later, they’ll recover,” he said. “The models typically don’t handle that well. It’s a chance for the local forecaster to know these things are coming up.”

Uhlmann’s webinar was part of Discovery Farms’ webinar series aimed at unmasking misconceptions in weather, water quality and on farm management strategies. The series runs Mondays in March from noon to 12:50 p.m. Archived versions of the webinars are available at www.uwdiscoveryfarms.org.