Wisconsin is again leading the nation in farm bankruptcies. As part of the economic distress, nearly ten percent of the state’s dairy farmers alone may quit the business this year. While analysts say low milk prices don’t help, the Trump administration’s trade and tariff policies are also being criticized.
Dairy farm closings are nothing new in Wisconsin. During just the last decade, about 40% of Wisconsin dairy operations have shut down. Mark Stephenson studies dairy policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and says milk prices have been low for five years.
“It’s not that the low is so awfully low. It’s that it’s been persistent. Normally, theses cycles are about three years in length, not five,” he says.
Stephenson says milk prices are low because supply still outpaces demand. Part of the issue is improved dairy science make cows more productive.The extended low prices come as many farmers have drawn down their financial reserves, he points out.
In Jefferson, west of Milwaukee, farmer Jeremy Chwala says he and his family still grow corn, soybeans and other crops on their 70 acres, plus other properties nearby. But he sold off his milk cows two years ago. Chwala says his hand was forced when he and other farmers lost a contract with a local milk plant that had exported product to Canada.
“We decided to disperse the herd because nobody was taking milk. There was such a glut of milk on the market, and the prices were terrible and had been terrible,” he tells WUWM.
With the loss of dairy income, Chwala now works in town changing tires at a service center. But he still raises calves for other farmers. With Mexico and China cutting back on importing U.S. dairy products in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on imported goods, Chwala, who says he voted for Trump, now questions the president’s trade war.
“I hate to talk politics, but I think we needed a president to stand up to these other countries, because they were taking advantage. But he’s affecting the farm economy, cause we don’t have a market. You know, it’s a global market nowadays. It ain’t United States, it’s global. And, will it help? I think eventually, but how many people are going to suffer before it helps?” he asks.
Chwala says he’s not sure if he’d vote for Trump again.
While many of the Wisconsin dairy farmers who have left the business are small producers, even larger farms say they’re hurt by the trade war.
Julie Maurer’s dairy near Manitowoc that has more than 1,200 cows. Maurer says to eke out a profit, the farm has to be very cost effective.
“That we’re not wasting labor and fuel and getting as much production out of cows as we can, and as much production out of the land as we can. It really makes you take a double and triple-check of everything to make sure you’re being efficient,” she explains.
Even with the bankruptcies, dairy is still a big player. Wisconsin’s remaining 7,500 dairy farms, along with milk and cheese plants, still contribute about $45 billion to the state’s economy.
But parts of the rural economy is suffering. A recent Marquette University poll found tariffs are unpopular in the state. So, while the Trump administration says it’s willing to expand aid to farmers hurt by its trade war, it’s unclear whether that will be enough for the president to again win the support of rural Wisconsin.