Still, rural banks are under increased scrutiny from regulators worried that farmers won't be able to repay what they owe. In Newport, Sarah Lloyd says this could be the last year for the dairy farm that she and her husband run. The farm near Wisconsin Dells has been in their family for more than a century. Sarah has a doctorate in rural sociology from UW-Madison; her dissertation examined agricultural sustainability in rural communities.
The route that milk takes from the farm to the grocery store is fairly straightforward. And fresh milk, unlike corn, soybeans or other farm commodities, can't be placed in storage while farmers wait for higher prices. Those prices are based on a complicated patchwork system of formulas and rules dating back to the s. The U. Department of Agriculture sets minimum prices based on the value of the products made from milk. There are four categories, or classes, in the system. Class I milk is for beverage products.
Class II is for soft dairy items, such as yogurt, ice cream, sour cream and cottage cheese. Class III is for hard cheeses. Class IV is for butter and powder products such as nonfat dry milk. Hans Breitenmoser Jr. The son of Swiss immigrants milks about dairy cows. Breitenmoser, the son of Swiss immigrants, milks about cows on his dairy farm in Merrill in Lincoln County. Maggie Breitenmoser, 14, feeds calves on her family's farm. Maggie Breitenmoser, 14, feeds calves while talking her grandmother, Margaret, on her family's farm in Merrill.
Calculating the prices begins with valuing cheese, dry whey, nonfat dry milk and butter using weekly average wholesale marketplace trends monitored by the USDA. The actual minimum price received by farmers is a blend of prices weighted by the percentage of milk used in each class.
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Farmers often receive premiums over the minimum price based on the value of various milk components, such as the amount of butterfat and protein. The full picture includes optional programs in which farmers can lock in advance prices through "forward contracting," thereby reducing risks but limiting the upside should market prices rise more than expected. Farmers also can purchase insurance that helps when the gap between milk prices and livestock feed costs widens to a certain point.
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The process, fraught with risks and rewards, leaves most farmers frustrated in not knowing what they'll be paid until a month after their milk is shipped to the processor. It even bewilders dairy economists at times. Some large farming operations collect "enormous sums" in government subsidies and crop insurance, but for average farmers, subsidies are just one of many factors that might keep their heads above water, said Kara O'Connor, government relations director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a Chippewa Falls-based trade group.
It probably doesn't happen that fast, unfortunately," said Karen Gefvert, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm group. With anywhere from 1, cows or more, large farms benefit from economies of scale — meaning they can negotiate lower prices for necessities such as animal feed and are better financed to weather a downturn. They have lower costs of production, per hundred pounds of milk, than most smaller farms. The production per cow is amazing. Cows that were exceptional 50 years ago — today they'd be called 'hamburger'.
As profit margins shrink, they squeeze out ever-higher amounts of milk to cover their costs — even if it adds to the surplus. Overall, though, the nation's milk supply remains high as cows taken from farms shutting down are moved to farms that are expanding. Compounding the problem, an average cow today produces about four times more milk than it would have in the s, thanks to advancements in genetics and feed science.
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That would put the total number, nationwide, at around 18, Wisconsin alone had more dairy farms than that as recently as All of this comes amid warning signs throughout U. The average age of the American farmer is now None of that is positive for American agriculture or our rural communities," said Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union. The recently released U. Census of Agriculture showed that more than half of American farms had negative cash farm income in Many of them were smaller operations barely hanging on. Bylsma places part of the blame on programs that encouraged farmers to ramp up milk production more than markets could bear.
History of agriculture in the United States
In , for example, Wisconsin Gov. Now, Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer from Westby and president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, worries that dairy is headed the way of pork and poultry, where much of the livestock is owned or controlled by a few corporations. The dairy crisis worsened last year when China and Mexico imposed steep tariffs on U. Trump's criticisms of Mexico, the largest foreign market for American dairy products, heightened trade tensions.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, now president of the U. Dairy Export Council. Closing the border would be a "gut punch" that could set the dairy industry back 20 years, Vilsack said. No one argues that trade isn't important for dairy farmers, but some worry about depending too much on it. Lately, he's been to scores of dairy farms in New York and Pennsylvania where farmers facing insurmountable hardships have called it quits.
This was his first time in Wisconsin. He bought the cows from Emily and Brandi Harris sight unseen, something he'd never done before. The barn at Wylymar Farms was built in the late s, then expanded in the s and again in the '70s. Its roof has started to go bad, a death knell for some old farm buildings. That's never going to happen here," Emily Harris said.
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One of the cows sold by Emily and Brandi Harris is shown in a trailer. Emily, left, and Brandi Harris move a gate on their organic dairy farm. Emily Harris directs one of her cows toward a waiting trailer. Emily Harris tosses lime in her barn after her herd was loaded onto a trailer at Wylymar Farms, the small organic dairy farm she owns with her wife, Brandi, in Monroe. Brandi, right, and Emily Harris remove the collars from their cows before the cows are loaded onto trailers. Farming awards received by Emily Harris hang in the barn. Emily Harris holds "Shitty Kitty" while taking a break from loading livestock.
The barn cat got the name after they found it covered with manure. The milk truck makes what will probably be its final pick up at Wylymar Farms. The barn is empty after the cows were loaded onto trailers. Spencer waits for someone to throw his ball on the small organic dairy farm Emily Harris owns with her wife, Brandi. Emily Harris relies on her dog, Spencer, to make her difficult job a little bit easier. The dog knows numerous voice commands and can move cattle around on the farm. He also provides a measure safety by placing himself between Harris and her bull. Emily Harris carries a calf from her barn onto a truck May 6 on the small organic dairy farm she owns with her wife, Brandi, in Monroe.
They sold most of their cow herd to farms in Indiana and New York.