Crisis in Dairy Country

I was on a call last week with the board and allies of Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, a twenty-year-old progressive dairy farmer group.  More than half the participants were dairy farmers, or used to be. It was a regular monthly board call to talk about business items, but conversation turned quickly to farmers’ stories. Wisconsin farm silo imageThe reality of the ongoing dairy crisis — more of a hemorrhage by now; I’m not sure “crisis” is still appropriate after 25 years — is devastating. The stories, each one different and each one the same, lose none of their impact after hearing so many of them over five years of working with independent farmers — on the contrary, every year feels worse: “How is this still happening??” We know all about the “dairy crisis” by now: the numbers are there, we know that 42,500 dairy farms have closed in the last decade and that rural America is crumbling; there have been two farm bills in that time — and a noble but entirely failed investigation into consolidation in the food and ag industry, stymied by meat packers and dairy processors — and yet nothing has changed to improve the situation of the small and midsize dairy farmer.

And in dairy country across the US, those farmers are struggling every day.

On the call, a farmer in Pennsylvania told us that her family sold their cows after 47 years of dairy farming. “We got tired of throwing our money down a big dark hole,” she said. The family is now planting corn; there is usually a good market for grain from her Amish neighbors, buying for their livestock. This year, though, she’s concerned that so many of them are getting out of dairy too that she’ll have no market for her new crop. “It’s like a rural slum in some areas,” she said.

A Pennsylvania neighbor of hers was on the call too; she’s still holding on, barely. Milk prices for farmers have gone up, but the gains are eroded by high grain costs. Her last milk check was nearly a third less than her cost of production. Milk prices are slowly creeping higher, she said, but, she said, “We have so many dark holes dug by years of insolvency that it will take a long time to get out.”  Our communities,” she added,  “are broken.”

My friend Joel is the president of Family Farm Defenders and facilitated the call. He didn’t share that night, but we know his story: his family has been farming in his southwest Wisconsin county for 140 years; last fall, he sold his cows and got a job in a cranberry processing plant. “You shouldn’t lock a farmer in a concrete box all day,” he told me the first time we talked about the job. After spending most of his life on his fields and in his barn, with nothing but the sound of cows and the clicking of milk lines, he said the noise of the frozen cranberries pouring through the metal tubes is deafening.

The reasons behind the dairy catastrophe are many — and at first glance, a partial list is wonkish and something of a snooze: a complicated system of pricing and governmental price supports; consolidation in the industry; corporate-like coops that act more like corporations; lack of Justice Department action to enforce fairness in the market, and more. (I have come to terms with the sad reality that most people don’t get as jazzed about antitrust enforcement as I do…)

But for as arcane as the causes are, farmers’ stories of the impacts are that much more compelling. In the next few months, I aim to introduce some of these farmers here — and break down just why, at a time when so many people around the country want to get to know their farmer, dairy farmers are only barely surviving.

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