Forum rallies legislators to save the farm industry

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Rural Prairie du Chien dairy farmer John Nolan put the farm forum panel members’ feet to the fire, asking them questions and sharing his personal story of doing everything he possibly can to make ends meet. (Photos by Correne Martin)

Farmers, processors, FFA students and ag industry professionals made up the 150 concerned citizens in attendance at Friday’s Farm Forum in Seneca.

Sen. Jennifer Shilling fervidly addresses a remark from the farm forum crowd that hypothetically asked what politicians are going to do about the current farm crisis issues. She said, during a farm tour that morning, she made notes of all the areas she’s going to get to work in to help out struggling farmers. Also pictured are Frank Friar (left), Wisconsin Farm Center economic specialist, and Ryan Cornett, regional representative for Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Matt Achenbach explains to Sen. Jennifer Shilling and 96th Assembly candidate Paul Buhr how the cows on Achenbach Hy-View Farms are monitored electronically. A special collar informs him how much each cow is eating and even if she’s eating at all. He said the system will notify him if she’s not eaten in four hours’ time, something the farm workers may not have noticed for a whole day or more without the technology. The Achenbachs were one of two Crawford County dairy farms toured by politicians and ag industry representatives prior to Friday’s farm forum in Seneca. They said times are tough, but they'll "be all right."

Matt Achenbach shows Sen. Jennifer Shilling and 96th Assembly candidate Paul Buhr his farm's manure pit and discusses how it was constructed, how often it's emptied, etc.

By Correne Martin

Farmers across the country, particularly in western Wisconsin, are lying awake at night in fear. They wonder whether they’ve worked their entire lives at something they’ve loved so deeply, just to lose the farm before the next generation gets a chance to try their hand at it. 

They’re worrying about low market milk prices, rising feed costs, lack of margin protection payout, ag loan woes, product marketing, encroaching out-of-state producers, free trade export deals—and the list goes on. 

Strong and determined yet depressed, they’re bothered by the ominous statistics: Western Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies in 2017. The suicide rate for farmers is more than double that of veterans.

But concerned Crawford County citizens have stepped up to the microphone, to share local farmers’ stories and get involved with potential relief amid the current farm crisis. They want to see things turn around. Their number one goal is to keep farmers farming.

A farm forum was held Friday, March 16, at the Seneca Town Hall, where local politicians (or their representatives) and industry professionals sat with about 150 regional citizens and FFA members in an emotional attempt to sort through the issues and initiate change. Spearheaded by Tammy Olson, of Olson Feed Service (and also sponsored by Johnson’s One Stop, Organic Valley and People’s State Bank), the two-and-a-half-hour forum followed a morning tour of two Crawford County dairy farms belonging to the Steve Achenbach and Ron Hartley families. 

Tears of passion

Perhaps the most moving moment of the question-and-answer town hall event came when dairy farmer John Nolan pressed the panel members’ feet to the fire.

“What do I say to my two young kids who want to farm? Do I tell them to go to a factory farm? Do I tell them to find a job in town where you can come home at night and not have to worry about this?” he shouted. “You need a lot of collateral to get a farm, but then what? We can’t even buy our own equipment. I’m tired of doing everything I possibly can to make ends meet.”

His tears and profanity riled up the relatively composed room of farmers. They sought answers to their troubles. Though no immediate solutions came from the meeting, the audience seemed to motivate the panel to take action, either through the 2018 Farm Bill or other legislation. Those in attendance were also encouraged to voice their opinions and spread awareness insistently. 

What’s causing the crisis? What can be considered?

The causes for the current crisis are many, in the eyes of those at the forum. The leading issue that seems to connect all aspects of the crisis is that Wisconsin is drowning in an oversupply of milk that is being sold at severely low prices, thus short-changing dairy farmers. Debts are mounting as these farmers are getting paid like they were in the 1970s, according to Olson. 

Kevin Walleser, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board representative, said that Wisconsin and the U.S. “are producing more milk than we can consume or sell at this time.” 

“We’re probably 15 percent long. We can’t drink our way out of this domestically,” Walleser quipped, noting that if the state can figure out a way to move another 6 percent, it might be able to “level the status quo.”

According to Nolan, farmers have still been pushed to increase herd size, from 50 to 500 and now even 5,000 cows in some cases. Until recently, they haven’t had to worry about overproduction because buyers were easy to find. However, too much milk has changed the market and local producers don’t have as much flexibility anymore. 

Now, “we have a whole room full of people who feel backed into a corner,” one farmer stated.

Several audience members questioned Walleser about why out-of-state milk is being used to produce “real Wisconsin” products like cheese and butter. Yet, it’s Wisconsin dollars that are being used to promote those products. One man suggested states like Michigan pay a promotional fee when they pull their trucks into the state’s processing plants. 

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden informed those gathered that Wisconsin just hosted Canadian farm industry reps last week. He feels some positive change could be gleaned from their example.

Von Ruden said Canada does not overproduce. Its farmers make about 20 billion pounds of milk a year, while Wisconsin producers alone turns out 30 billion pounds in that same time period. He said their average herd size is 75 and that supply management program is key in their country. 

Though Canada formed a new class of milk last year that some feel has undercut U.S. prices in the trade industry, he noted, “We have a lot bigger competition with New Zealand than we’ll ever have with Canada.” 

Piggybacking on Von Ruden’s comments, Sen. Jennifer Shilling wondered whether Wisconsin’s incredible supply may have been “an unintended consequence” of the state’s 30x20 dairy plan that, starting in 2012, supported dairy farmers willing to increase volume, in an effort to reach 30 billion pounds by the year 2020. No one in the room had an answer for Shilling.

Although, in an interview prior to the forum, Olson referred to exports as the key market to alleviating overproduction and achieving higher milk prices.

Better dairy promotion needed

A potential solution that received cheers in the town hall Friday was one woman’s aim to “make sure the next generation starts enjoying dairy products again.”

“If they were offered whole milk, kids would wanna drink it, and we wouldn’t have as much excess cream. We have a really good product and it’s healthy,” she said. She alluded to promotion of “enhanced” alternatives, such as juices and “nut milk,” as to blame for declining milk consumption. Many of the farmers at the meeting concurred that promotion of fluid milk’s benefits could improve its healthy image and make it the preferred product.

Art Thiel, of La Farge, agreed and shared his thoughts. He said the Zip Stop in his community can’t keep snack-size milk containers stocked fast enough because they turned their milk cooler temperature down to 33 degrees. “It just tastes better when it’s ice cold,” he said.

Raw milk was briefly mentioned at Friday’s meeting as a means for sales in the future. Only 11 states allow sales of raw milk, but Wisconsin isn’t one of them. 

Rep. Lee Nerison, the Assembly Ag Committee chair, who just announced he’s not seeking re-election in the fall, informed the crowd that raw milk can be sold in Wisconsin on an incidental basis, with no advertising. 

“We just have no definition of what incidental is,” he stated. 

Dairy pride important

Several people vocalized their opinions at the meeting that these plant-based products, such as almond milk, should not be called “milk.” 

“It should be advertised as its own product, not on the farmers’ coattails,” Olson said prior to the forum. She recommended a healthier twist in dairy product advertising. “2 percent milk is 98 percent fat free,” she said, “and chocolate milk is known to be the best go-to recovery drink after exercise. We need to educate people about these things.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s regional representative, Ryan Cornett, pointed out that Baldwin is working on the Dairy Pride Act, which has bipartisan support. The act fights back against non-dairy products that are “mislabeled” as milk, yogurt and cheese. He said this proposal is in the introductory stage in committee at this time. 

“Research indicates that almond milk is not as nutritious as cow’s milk,” Cornett added.

Shilling noted that the Farm to School campaign of the UW-Extension is thriving and said she will continue to support it. “Funding is vital to those programs, where we can promote these products and make that connection with kids about where their food comes from,” she said. 

Doug Yager, a farmer who traveled from Mineral Point for the forum, asked Walleser why $330 million is spent in promotion of dairy, while $80 million is spent on beef promotion nationally. Yet, dairy farmers aren’t seeing an acceptable rate of return. He urged his peers to hold the WMMB and other promotional entities accountable.

“So many dollars are taken out of our milk check to promote. What are we doing with that money?” he questioned.

Walleser responded that, for ever $1 of fluid milk, $3 is spent on promotion. However, for that same $1, $7 is spent to promote cheese and $32 is spent to advocate for butter.

That prompted one farmer to propose converting more resources to butter. “In my opinion, we can take the money we spend on the Fuel Up to Play 60 promotion of low-fat and fat-free products and [convert it elsewhere],” he declared.

Another farmer proposed adjusting promotional dollars toward a program that would mail-order the state’s cheese.

There’s a lot of buzz about specialty cheeses right now, while Wisconsin’s name as the world’s best cheese producer is growing. 

“People want good Wisconsin cheese. It has a 200 to 300 percent markup at the grocery store,” she said.

Payback and insurance

But that comment sparked disgust at the payback producers are receiving from those grocery store prices. Not only are local farmers not receiving the percentage they feel they deserve, but they also feel the rate of inflation has skipped over them. 

“The cost of cars has gone way up, but milk prices are the same as the 1970s. [A gallon of milk is] still $1.99 in stores. Why is that?” Nolan cried. “Now we have to borrow money to even put our crops in.” 

Von Ruden added that subsidies are frozen at 1995 levels and the “bottom 80 percent of policy holders are receiving only 20 percent from the program.”

In terms of insurance available to assist these struggling farmers, the 2015 Dairy Margin Protection Program was supposed to fit the bill and pay out when milk prices fell or feed costs rose. However, according to Brad Pfaff, Cong. Ron Kind’s deputy chief of staff, that program did not have a lot of dollars behind it to begin with and there’s been a “lack of payout.” He said Kind supports legislation to modify the program, and he hopes to reform other plans such as the crop insurance program within the 2018 Farm Bill.

Cornett added that Sen. Baldwin is also working on revising margin protection. 

Since the current Farm Bill expires Dec. 31, 2018, the new Farm Bill is on the cusp of being introduced in Washington. 

“We need to focus like a laser beam on dairy. It’s a prime maker of our economy,” Sen. Jennifer Shilling said.

It was apparent at the forum that the men and women who work to feed the world only dream to escape this path of fewer farmers getting paid less. Through Friday’s event, they’ve blown open the lines of communication. They're ready to organize, spread awareness and create change.

They’re ready to start sleeping better at night.

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