Last year was a difficult one for dairy farmers across Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, the state lost more than 600 dairy herds. The herds left are nearly half the number the state saw 15 years ago.
Jim Goodman was one of those farmers.
For the past 40 years, the Wonewoc farmer has been working on the same land with descendants from the same herd his grandfather bought in 1904.
“One would always walk across the pasture because she saw you there and knew that if you came over you’d probably scratch her head,” Goodman said. “And a lot of them would probably be turning around and licking you when you were milking them.”
Choosing to sell out
He said he always tried to make it work as a small farmer with 45 to 50 cows he could milk himself. This past summer, Goodman decided he couldn’t do it anymore.
“There wasn’t enough money in it,” he said.
Goodman said farms like his struggled to compete as larger farms produced more and more and milk prices dropped. At the same time, he said production costs continued to rise, making it hard to break even.
“Farming used to pay enough that you could make a decent living at it if you were willing to work hard and most farmers are,” he said.
Goodman sold his herd to an organic farm upstate. He considered himself lucky another farm that allowed cows to pasture and feed on grass was able to take them in, but he says the price he got was a fraction of what they were worth only a few years ago.
Goodman said he’s far from alone. In the past week, he said he knew of two other similar dairy farms selling out and he’s already seen the emotional toll.
“When you do something for 10 or 20 or 30 years and all of a sudden although you’re working just as hard or harder than ever and it’s just not working, you tend to blame yourself,” he said.
Goodman said it will take serious changes either within the industry or within each individual farm themselves to guarantee a future for farms like his.
“It would be nice to say hang on because things are going to get better and eventually they will,” he said. “But we don’t know when and a lot of farms are going to go out of business before that.”
In Green County, Dan Wegmueller found his farm struggling after both his parents died suddenly. He was left with thousands of acres, an empty farm house and dozens of brown Swiss cows.
Facing the same price problems as his peers, Wegmueller said he wanted to resist the urge to amp up production to make ends meet.
“We actually cut back and got smaller, and we really really focused on making this farm as manageable as kind of a one person operation as possible,” he said.
He sold hundreds of acres and decided to rent out his farm house, but Wegmueller said things still weren’t adding up.
“We didn’t know if we were going to make it through the year,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were going to sell out in 2018 or not.”
Then in September, Wegmueller said they opened up an Airbnb in the farm house, offering visitors the chance to not only stay at a working farm, but to experience it.
“Every group that comes through, every group that we host it reminds me of why I’m doing this in the first place.” he said.
Wegmueller said they tried to make it an educational experience, offering tractor rides, letting guests take part in milking and helping them understand what it takes to put food on their tables.
“Everybody comes here for a different reason, and they all interact a little bit differently with the farm,” he said.
The farm was booked from September through Thanksgiving. Wegmueller said they’ve had a steady stream of people coming in for the winter.
“The question is how do you keep a small farm relevant going into the future and I think we’re onto something here.”
Fighting for a future
Despite his success, Wegmueller said he understands adding a part-time farm stay isn’t an option for every farm.
“My advice towards other dairy farmers would be to definitely think outside the box,” he said. “Other farms might be able to do something different but I definitely think the future for operations like this and farming in this country in general is to re-establish that communication, re-establish that relationship with that end consumer.”
Goodman agreed the future of farming is tied to public understanding of where food comes from. That’s why he shared his story with The Washington Post.
Reaching thousands across the country, Goodman hopes it’s a first step in convincing the nation farms like Wegmueller’s should stay alive.
“I think people needed to know, what it’s like for the farmers to be going out of business,” he said. “How emotionally difficult that is for them and especially farmers that want to see the small or young people to have the ability to get into farming.”
Beyond that, he said he’s looking to have an active retirement. Goodman said he plans to work with the Farmer’s Union and the boards he’s on to promote change in Madison and Washington, D.C.
Without regulations on imports, environmental stewardship and fair pricing he said those small farms won’t stand a chance.
“It’s time to raise less corn and more hell,” he said. “I think that’s what we need to do because unless we do, things aren’t going to change.”