ARENA — Ten years ago on a rainy August morning, I loaded my dairy herd onto trucks bound for another farm — and my life as a dairy farmer came to an end.
It was the only life I had known over my 55 years. I grew up on a Midwestern family dairy farm, learning from my father the daily routine of chores that dairy farming demands. After college, I returned to farm full time. My wife, Cheryl, a suburban girl from Ohio, and I raised our three sons in the farming life. For 30 years, we survived low prices, high expenses, droughts, floods, relentless work and everything else farming could throw at us.
We kept at it because we loved it.
Then, like so many farmers, we hit what I call the “30-year wall.” Physically, the work had taken its toll. We found it more difficult to stay on the treadmill of expansion that drives modern agriculture. As our sons found new careers and lives beyond the farm, we began to consider what once would have seemed preposterous — life outside of farming.
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That August day the cows left was the first in 70 years no milk was shipped from the Smith farm. I stood in the empty barn and wept.
What became of the Smith farm is not unusual. In 1978, when I began farming with my father, Wisconsin had over 47,000 licensed family dairy farms. Today, all but about 6,000 are gone. Yet those remaining produced a record 30 billion pounds of milk in 2018. Changes in technology, genetics, nutrition and herd management transformed dairying.
Some adapted and survived. The majority quit. It seems the dairy industry has done a great job of keeping the cows but not the farmers.
Today, dairy farming looks vastly different than it did when I was farming. Modern dairy farms are able to milk, house and feed thousands of cows, employ teams of hired labor and manage high amounts of working and investment capital. Just as Walmart and Amazon replaced the local stores that once lined Main Street, these large-scale operations replaced many of the farms that were once the foundation of the rural Midwest. The vast majority are still family farms, but consolidation and modernization have greatly changed the scope of operations.
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The departure from farming has accelerated in recent years due to an aging farm population, farm consolidation, non-farm career opportunities and the downturn in the farm economy. When farmers headed to the field this spring to plant, they did so knowing the market prices for nearly everything they produce are at or below the cost of production. Cornered by rising costs, international trade disputes and climate change, they watch the equity on their farm balance sheets drain like grain down a funnel. Farmers tend to respond to low prices and high prices the same way — produce more. Fewer and fewer are able to maintain the pace or weather the financial storm.
Since leaving the farm, I have been fortunate to assist farmers facing the same difficult choices. I have sat at kitchen tables in farmhouses across Wisconsin while tears flowed and difficult decisions were made. The farming dream dies hard. Farmers have no easy answers, and every farm situation is different.
Agriculture cannot reverse itself to a bygone era. Our rural communities cannot reinvent themselves overnight, and a new wave of young farmers is not likely to find a foothold in an industry facing such upheaval. Those facts are of little comfort the day the farm is sold.
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Over the past year, an average of two Wisconsin dairy farms sold their cows every day. I feel for these farmers who, like me, found themselves alone in an empty barn as the trucks hauled the cows away.
The impact of change and economic uncertainty is causing severe emotional stress in the Midwest. Depression, drug abuse and suicide threaten the once pastoral environment of our rural communities. No one seems to know what agriculture will look like a decade from now, just that it will be far different than what I knew as a farmer.
Looking back, I am glad my father raised me to be a farmer, and that I raised my sons on the farm. Given the chance, I would do it all again. For those still farming, I wish you rains that come at the right time, higher prices and good health. For those who, like myself, moved onto a life beyond the farm, may you find comfort in the memories.
When farmers headed to the field this spring to plant, they did so knowing the market prices for nearly everything they produce are at or below the cost of production. Cornered by rising costs, international trade disputes and climate change, they watch the equity on their farm balance sheets drain like grain down a funnel.