Dairy farmers are in crisis. Lawmakers need to rally round.

Wisconsin has lost more than 5,000 dairy farms in the past 10 years.

Holstein cows in a barn at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station's north campus near Stratford, Wis., Wednesday afternoon, July 11, 2018. Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

Pete Hardin, an intrepid farm reporter, had been chronicling the dairy crisis for four years when in early February he came across more evidence of its devastating impact: An estimated 32% of Wisconsin dairy farmers hadn’t secured spring planting loans.

That’s what was reported at the annual meeting of the Land O’ Lakes farm cooperative. Two months later, a reliable source told him the number had fallen by only a half-dozen or so percentage points.

Banks were holding back because the downward spiral of declining milk consumption, oversupply of product and collapsing prices had capsized the finances of so many dairy farmers. 

Simply put, they were bad credit risks. 

Consider in the first half of 2019 that 17 dairy farms shut down on average every week in Wisconsin, according to the state’s tally of licensed dairy producers. The 7,661 farms still milking on July 1 compare to 12,705 just 10 years earlier. Yes, more than 5,000 Wisconsin dairy farms vanished in that time. 

Hardin, who lives in rural Green County and for 40 years has published an iconoclastic dairy report called The Milkweed, is an unabashed battler for dairy farmers. When he met with Wisconsin’s secretary of agriculture designee Brad Pfaff in early May he made his pitch.

He urged the secretary to support a special legislative session focused on the dairy crisis. Empower the state-sponsored Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, for example, to make emergency loans to farmers.

“There’s not going to be any fall crops if there are no spring loans,” says Hardin, stressing the immediacy of the problem.

Never happened. There was no special session. Nor did Democrats and Republicans get behind a comprehensive dairy agenda during the regular session. 

“America’s Dairyland”? That’s a fading marketing line on our license plates. The Capitol politicians no longer seem to think farming is special to Wisconsin.

Hardin eventually heard from an Ag department staffer that his numbers on the unmet spring loans could not be verified. He shrugs off the statement by pointing out the secretary’s own office has publicly acknowledged the lending problem.

A May 31 press release from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection cautions farmers about resorting to exploitive “nontraditional” online lenders if they can’t secure a conventional loan from a Wisconsin financial institution. 

“Some farmers put everything on their credit card at God knows what interest rate or worse yet worked with an online lender with usurious interest rates,” Hardin says. “Honestly, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans addressed the reality that dairy farmers were on the brink of financial and psychological meltdown.” 

And it wasn’t just the collapsed market driving farmers to despair, he says, but also the aberrant weather keeping farmers out of their fields and President Donald Trump disrupting the global farm trade with his punitive tariffs. 

When I emailed with Pfaff’s communications director, Grace Colás, she touted the 51 recommendations of the just finished Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0, particularly on how Gov. Tony Evers budget proposal for the $8.8 million Dairy Innovation Hub drew the support of the Republican controlled Legislature for stepped up dairy-related research at UW-Madison and the UW campuses in Platteville and River Falls.

Other measures didn’t survive the antagonistic Republican review. Notably $200,000 for a new dairy export program to help build Wisconsin’s dairy brand overseas. This gets to a critical disconnect. In recent years, state dairy policy has been heavily one-sided in its focus on increasing milk production.

Not so much to matching it to expanding demand, which is crucial to maintaining a sustainable price for dairy farmers to prosper. “We need reasoned growth and not all-out growth in the milk supply,” Hardin says. 

Former Gov. Scott Walker didn’t get it.

Hardin blames Walker for super-charging milk production. By rolling back environmental rules, Walker opened the barn doors to the mega-dairies like the one milking upwards of 8,000 cows in Fond du Lac County. Walker’s signature “30×20” dairy plan, meanwhile, provided ample financing (through tax credits) for dairy farms to ramp up their operations. The “30×20” goal was just as advertised: Producing 30 billion pounds of Badger milk annually by 2020. 

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the goal was reached early. The bad news was that the outcome was catastrophic. The supply of milk so outstripped demand that milk processors began cutting off farmers, who then faced the horror of dumping their raw milk unless they found a new processor.

“While we were building production momentum, the world markets collapsed,” says Hardin, pointing to China’s broad retreat from the world commodity markets beginning in 2014. 

Wisconsin’s dairy farmers got “duped” by Walker. That’s how former Wonewoc beef-and-dairy man Jim Goodman has described it. 

“Farm-ageddon” was The Milkweed’s succinct headline.

If you talk to Hardin long enough, you learn he’s not a partisan. He has a scathing view of inept federal dairy policy under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Thus far, on the state front, he’s unimpressed with Democrats Evers and Pfaff. Republicans talk a good game but don’t walk the talk. The only recent dairy-friendly politicians Hardin can name are Tammy Baldwin and Russ Feingold.

For dairy farmers, “the politics of Washington failed and the politics of Wisconsin failed,” Hardin says. He’s not exactly a  big fan of UW-Madison either. Take its handling of the long-delayed expansion of the UW Center for Dairy Research. Plagued by cost overruns and design problems, the project, which includes renovating the aging Babcock Hall dairy plant (yes, where the beloved campus ice cream is made), is now three-and-a-half years behind schedule.

“The condition of Babcock Hall is an embarrassment to the university and to the state dairy industry,” Hardin says. The labs date to the 1950s. Mold is a problem. Walls are breaking apart. “How can they attract topnotch graduate students and topnotch scientists if the infrastructure is falling down around them?” he asks.

Wisconsin cheesemakers and dairy farmers are furious, as Hardin has reported in The Milkweed. They got skin in the game. Half of the center’s operating budget for dairy research and promotion is funded by farmers through a mandatory check-off when they sell their milk. More to the point, the dairy industry led by cheesemakers from across the country stepped up to pledge more than $18 million for the renovation’s capital campaign. 

They viewed the value of the center’s research that highly.

Dairy Bites

  • There are 1.28 million dairy cows in Wisconsin.
  • Each cow produces about 67 pounds of milk each day. 
  • Dairy herds total 7,661.
  • There are 164 cows in the average herd.
  • The dairy industry contributes $43.4 billion to the state economy.
  • There are more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin.
  • 90% of Wisconsin milk is used in cheesemaking. 
  • Wisconsin produced 3.42 billion pounds of cheese in 2018.

SOURCES:

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

But what was projected in 2012 as an eventual $32 million construction project is now expected to hit $47 million by the time work is finished in late 2020. From Hardin’s perspective this is a managerial fiasco. He blames both the Walker administration and the UW for mishandling the expansion project. 

“It’s symbolic of the state’s inattention to the needs of the dairy industry,” he says.

Given the barbed wire separating Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol, what I say here may sound downright foolish. But a better outcome was possible. 

Imagine if Gov. Evers, Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had gathered at the onset of the January legislative session to say that Job One would be working out a rescue plan for Wisconsin dairy farmers before turning to the new state budget.

Not everything has to be draped in extreme partisanship. Our leaders could have rallied around family farmers. Right?

Chances are the pols would have found a common ground. Goodwill would have followed. The budget deliberations would have been less smash-face. Can’t you imagine a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” breaking out as Evers signed the budget bill surrounded by the beaming Vos and Fitzgerald?

Okay, I am a fool.

These people have warring agendas and a preference for disingenuous arguments. That’s what they do. A few years ago, Republicans gave manufacturers a huge and costly income tax cut under the cover it would also help farmers. Democrats, meanwhile, are intensely committed to issues that appeal to Milwaukee County and Dane County activists. Yes, expanding Medicaid will help struggling Wisconsin farm families, but citing it as a cornerstone to the Democrats’ farm policy is such a clumsy sleight of hand.

Wisconsin farmers need more than lip service from the pols. They need smart policies broadly supported. Otherwise we ought to change the tagline on our license plates. “America’s Dairyland”? Not anymore.

 

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