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A grim outlook for small dairy farmers

It was about 50 years ago that a Wisconsin dairy farmer took a break from his field work to dig a deep hole in the sandy soil of his central Wisconsin farm where he planned to bury some of his Holstein calves after he killed them. He was among a group of farmers who, along with others who dumped milk, sought to reduce the oversupply of milk that was dragging down prices and draw public attention to their plight.

As a young reporter for the then Milwaukee Journal, this was one of hundreds of stories I wrote about dairy farming in the 60s and 70s, but I often think of it when, like now, dairy prices fall and farmers suffer the consequences of over production.

The sad spectacle of calf killing and milk dumping made no difference in the sorry outcome for thousands of farm families in the state who had to quit the dairy business. And efforts by government programs to stem the flow of families out of dairying also failed.

There were about 100,000 dairy farms in the state in 1960 and the number had dwindled to 8,801 as of Jan. 1 this year.

So it is that the legacy of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz has transformed the Wisconsin landscape and communities that once were supported by farm families. Those families patronized local business, attended churches, conducted 4-H programs, sent their children to public schools and served on school and town boards and other civic positions.

Butz, who was Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, famously advised farmers to get big or get out. He said he wasn’t against small family farms, just “inefficient” farms. He wanted to unleash the food production power of American agriculture and reduce the involvement of government in the free market. Farms needed to get big to accomplish that. And those that remained generally have modernized and expanded.

The “free market” was never truly free and the debate on how to manage agriculture has never been fully settled on how to provide a safety net for farmers without interfering in what and how much farmers produce or at what point farms become too big to deserve government help.

For example, the success of a government incentive for making ethanol from corn has presented an alternative land use to dairying even on lands not suited for row crop production due to their erosion risk. Dairy programs meant to help family farmers have not considered size which has meant, in effect, federal support for the concentration of production into ever-larger operations called CAFOs, which have in turn contributed to the growth in dairy surpluses. And Wisconsin has indirectly subsidized industrial scale production with lax enforcement of water standards and permits for high capacity wells that impact neighboring water users and surface water.

This so-called industrialization of agriculture has happened without efforts to fit the growing operations to the landscape. Rather, the landscape has been modified to fit the size of agricultural enterprise — truckloads of manure traveling back roads to reach fields no longer connected to the source; farmland under contract to absorb manure from giant dairies that don’t own sufficient land to manage manure output; fencerows that once served as wildlife habitat replaced by vast fields suitable for ever-larger equipment. All efficient, just like Butz envisioned.

Butz’s plans for farm prosperity also depended on selling products to the world. According to a recent article in Hoard’s Dairyman, the respected journal of the industry published in Wisconsin, U.S. dairy prices are increasingly tied to world markets. And the outlook is for supply to continue to exceed demand. Further, there are worries of the potential for trade wars to disrupt markets, according to other analysts.

Although some farm groups are calling for emergency intervention by Congress to help dairy farmers, it seems unlikely that there will be any substantial efforts to stop the long-term trend of concentraton of dairy production in fewer giant operations.

Carl Zulauf, of the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Developmental Economics at Ohio State University, last year said that total cost of producing milk was 55 percent lower for herds of 1,000 or more cows than for herds of less than 50 cows and “declines steadily across the various herd sizes…”

He said that a pronounced difference in profitability due to size of operation suggests the need for separate policies based on size, which is “a major change in underlying philosophy and approach of U.S. commodity policy. It is unclear if the U.S. is ready for such a switch, but it is also unclear if its dairy policy debate can be resolved without such a switch or at least debate of such a switch.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin faces the prospect of a day when the last family-scale dairy farm goes out of business and the bucolic image of the cows grazing on pasture with a red barn and white frame farmhouse in the background is just a memory. The news from rural Wisconsin will concern regulation of industrialized farming amid waning public support for exemptions for agriculture for pollution control, employment and other issues.

Earl Butz was fond of telling the following story that brought a laugh from farmers who saw it as recognition of their persistence in the face of adversity: “I saw this farmer, and I asked him, ‘What’s your hobby?’ He said, ‘Farming.’ I said, ‘What would you do if you inherited a million dollars?’ He said, ‘I’d keep on farming as long as the money lasted.’ “

For many dairy farmers, Butz’s old joke has a bitter tone given their love for their way of life and the financial dilemmas that have led farmers to desperate acts in the past.

Source: Lacross Tribune

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