America’s Dairyland. Wisconsin has held this title since the early 1900s, but in recent years, dairy farming has hit a wall.
Production costs, overproduction and lower prices for milk have forced many small dairy farmers to abandon a way of life that spans generations. The stress that small dairy farmers face trying to maintain a family tradition has also contributed to a rise in suicide rates among farmers.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farm milk prices peaked at $24 for every hundred pounds of milk produced in 2014. Since then, prices have dropped to around $15, the lowest since 2009, while the cost of production is around $22 for the same hundredweight.
More than 7,000 Wisconsin dairy farms have gone out of business since 2004, and in 2018, nearly 700 — nearly two a day — were lost, according to the state Department of Agriculture’s Division of Food Safety.
Small dairy farmers, who have higher costs per cow, have been devastated by the volatile nature of dairy farming. Large dairy farms have survived through economies of scale. In an August 2018 article, “Dairy: Family Farmers in Crisis,” Farmaid.org reported that corporate interests have contributed to the loss of family farms.
“In March 2018, mega-retailer Walmart unveiled the construction of its own dairy plant in Indiana, supplied by 30 farms,” reported Farm Aid, a family farm advocacy group begun in 1985. “This move is widely believed to have influenced Dean Foods’ decision to abruptly sever contracts with more than 100 dairy farms in eight states.”
Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wis., said that even organic dairy farmers face unfair competition. He wrote a column in The Washington Post last December titled “Dairy farming is dying. After 40 years, I’m done.”
“When six dairy farms in Texas feed their thousands of cows a diet of organic grain and stored forage, with no discernible access to a blade of grass, they end up producing more milk than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined,” he said. “Then they ship it north, undercutting our price. We played by the rules, but we no longer have a level playing field.”
Now add to these concerns the new tariffs on dairy products due to the Trump administration’s trade disputes with China, Canada and Mexico. This export tax is estimated to have a $75 million a month impact on Wisconsin dairy farms.
The U.S. bishops have weighed in on the “ethical and human dimensions of agricultural issues.” In a pastoral reflection, “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food,” written in 2003, the bishops encourage Catholics “to promote a food and agricultural system more focused on overcoming hunger, providing a decent living for farmers and farm workers, and protecting the earth and its resources.”
They listed several areas of concern that must guide agricultural policy, including ensuring a decent life for farmers, sustaining and strengthening rural communities and protecting God’s creation.
What can we do to help our dairy farm friends?
Farm Aid suggests seeking out local dairy products at grocery stores, farmers’ markets and farm stands. “Buying as directly as possible from local farmers helps them capture as much of the food dollar as possible, and in turns boosts the local economy,” the advocacy group says.
We can also offer spiritual support. The Diocese of Green Bay annually sponsors two Rural Life Days as a way to “praise God’s abundant generosity” for farmers. This year’s Rural Life Days are April 2 at Sacred Heart Church in Shawano and April 4 at St. Louis Church in Dyckesville. Both days begin with Mass at 10:30 a.m., followed by lunch and a speaker.
All are invited to attend Mass and pray for the success of all farmers. Tickets to attend the luncheon and speaker can be purchased seven days in advance by calling either parish.