Milk: Too Much of a Good Thing

To fix the dairy farm crisis, stop overproduction

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

Our cup runneth over. In 2018 Wisconsin dairy farmers produced a record 30.6 billion pounds of milk. That’s billion with a “b.” We’ve been trained to see increase and plentitude as always a good thing. In the case of milk, America’s Dairyland has too much of a good thing. To be fair it’s not just Wisconsin farmers who are creating this flood of milk. U.S. dairy farmers as a group produced 217.6 billion pounds of milk in 2018. If you are trying to visualize that at home, there are about eight and a half pounds of milk in a gallon jug. 

At that same time we are reaching record production, we are seeing record levels of farm loss. Dairy farmers are struggling to keep their farm businesses afloat. Overproduction, coupled with changing export markets, have led to record low prices paid to farmers. We’re now going into the fifth year of farmers not covering our costs of production with the price we receive. The trouble with the export markets started even before President Donald Trump started tweeting out trade wars and tariffs. 

The number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has now dipped below 8,000. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports nearly 700 farms going out of dairy farming in 2018 in the state. Despite the loss of farms, we have not seen a dip in our overall production. The low prices push the remaining farmers to add more cows, to try to eke out survival with a lower margin. We also see outside investors coming in to back bigger and bigger farms. This just adds to the vicious cycle of overproduction and low prices. 

America’s Dairyland is based on more than pounds of milk produced. Those 700 farms that went out of the dairy business represent 700 families and 700 businesses that create vibrancy and economic activity in their local communities. These are people who put their  kids in the local schools, shop at the local stores, and attend local churches and social events.

To cover this gaping wound we have been offered BandAids. Just this week the Trump administration announced a new round of direct support payments to farmers to try to make up some portion of the income lost due to trade wars. Farmers don’t want handouts. We want a fair price in the market. 

At the state level the Dairy Task Force 2.0 that was set up by Gov. Scott Walker and continued by Gov.Tony Evers offered solutions including money to cheese makers and the University System to make more cheese and innovative dairy products, relying on the notion that this will trickle down to the farmer. From the new Secretary of Agriculture we have heard that we should stay positive and concentrate on export markets. 

Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff, has also gone to bat for funding for mental health support for struggling farmers. This is definitely an important safety net. But we need bolder action, oriented towards the long-term viability of Wisconsin dairy farms and rural communities, not just band aids for individual farmers who are going over the precipice. 

We have a choice here in Wisconsin. We can produce 30.6 billion pounds of milk on  250 farms with an average of 5,000 cows each. Or we can be bold and choose to build a system that will support 10,000 dairy farms with an average of 150 cows. There is a fundamental difference in what our state will look like under  these two very different models. 

Let’s come together and build a resilient system for dairy production in the state. We won’t get there by  concentrating on export markets and applying bandages. We won’t get there without dealing with the issue of overproduction. We need all hands on deck. Gov. Tony Evers and Secretary-designee Pfaff should stand with the growing movement of dairy farmers under the Dairy Together banner, calling for a system of managed growth,that would balance supply with actual demand, reducing our reliance on surplus export markets and produce a fair price through the market. 

We need all Wisconsinites to reach out to state and federal decision-makers, including the Wisconsin Congressional delegation and the president, to demand federal policy that supports family farmers.n. And let’s steer the resources that have been allocated to dairy product innovation into high-value products and helping farmers revamp their production to develop business relationships between cheese makers, distributors, retailers and consumers that actually pay a decent price to the farmers and allow them to make a living.  America’s Dairyland depends on it.

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