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Wisconsin dairy farmers are struggling, but what can be done?

A state where “America’s Dairyland” is emblazoned on license plates, dairy farms are going out of business at an alarming rate. More than 500 farms closed across Wisconsin in 2017, according to the state Department of Agriculture, up 20 percent from the past five years. Mitch Breunig is hoping his farm isn’t one of the next to close. Breunig, a board member for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, owns a registered Holstein farm in Roxbury. I talked to him about what Wisconsin farmers are facing, and why everyone should care. This is the edited conversation. 

Explain what dairy farmers and the dairy industry are experiencing right now.
Prices are low, so the margin of what the cost of production is and the price we’re receiving is probably negative on many, many farms right now, and it’s been that way probably since February.

Why are we in this situation?
There’s an abundance of milk. That seems to be the recurring theme. But it’s also that processing isn’t available. Last year Canada stopped taking [Wisconsin-based] Grassland [Dairy Products ultra-filtered] milk and New York milk. We basically grew those markets with the intent to export those products to Canada. And when you turn that off, all of a sudden you’ve got to find a new home for that milk, and it’s a real struggle.

How is the international trade situation affecting farmers here?
They announced we’re going to have tariffs with Mexico, and Mexico is going to [impose a] tariff [on] our cheese. Mexico is the No. 1 importer of Wisconsin dairy products, so to have that market disrupted and have them look for other people to get their products from, that’s a really big deal. We don’t know what the impact of that is, but in the long term, if Mexico buys fewer dairy products, it really affects Wisconsin. We keep talking about Canada. Canada is really not the issue. It’s more like Mexico and China and all these new markets that we’re trying to develop.

The governor announced he’s going to start a dairy task force run by the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Can that help, or what is it that farmers really need right now?
Until we do something about having too much milk, I don’t know what we’re going to do to change the situation. And yet when you look at a farm as its own unit — I don’t have too much milk on my farm. The way that I’m going to be more profitable is to sell more milk, because as I sell more milk, my cost to produce it probably goes down. It’s that way in any business. If Culver’s sells more ButterBurgers, they make more of a profit. And yet when you look at it collectively, if everybody has more milk, the issue is [that] there’s too much milk. 

What does the general public need to understand about what’s going on here?
Consumers really like dairy products. They eat butter, cheese, ice cream. What they need to understand when buying that milk is the true nutritional value of that product. I mean it’s second to none what they’re being able to buy for $2. So try to find the local brands, what’s manufactured in Wisconsin, and support those farms and understand that we need to sell more of our product. It truly is family farms. It’s families that are struggling right now with these low prices. They’re losing their equity and all the money that they’ve built in their businesses over the years. All of a sudden it’s just going away and they need to either make a huge change or sell out before their equity is gone. When you sell your farm, you sell your house, you sell your livelihood. You sell a lot of things besides just cows and machinery.


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