A Changing Industry: Wisconsin Farms at a Crossroads

Nate Scheuermann

By Nate Scheuermann

County Road 72 is as typical a country road as you’ll find in Wisconsin. Surrounding the pavement on either side are corn and soybean fields, interrupted only by the occasional small patch of woods or family homes that are synonymous with rural Wisconsin.

Located about five miles west of Downsville, among the rolling hills and in the shadows of bluffs in the distance, sits Alfalawn Farms, a family owned and operated dairy farm run by Dave Steyer and his brothers, as well as other family members.

“There’s also my wife Karen, and my brother Randy’s significant other Heather,” Steyer said. “And then we have a bunch of the kids that are involved as well. At times we’ll have 12-14 family members working on the dairy.”

Steyer fits the profile of many dairy farmers in Wisconsin. He was born into a family of multi-generational farmers, works closely with his family on the day-to-day operations of the farm, and believes that it’s a great way to earn a living.

“It’s still an awesome way of life to raise a family,” Steyer said while having no doubts about the benefits of the hard work he and his family put in on the farm.

“We run some long hours so we’re thankful we live in a neighborhood where it’s still OK and accepted and people understand,” Steyer said. 

As modern farming continues to evolve, the traditional ways of the Wisconsin agriculture industry are struggling to keep up. A record number of Wisconsin farmers are having to shut down their operation due to uncertain commodity markets, rising costs of industry, and changing demographics and mental health problems in one of Wisconsin’s most celebrated and historical industries.

Financial constraints

If you were to drive down most rural Wisconsin roads, you’d see the same familiar scene as County Road 72. Fields full of crops dotting the countryside and small farms occupying the same plots of land that have been farmed for generations. However, one visual that is becoming more common in Wisconsin are farms that have been shut down.

One constant challenge faced by farmers of almost every generation has been low or unstable milk and crop prices. While Wisconsin’s dairy industry has continued to soldier on, many farms have not survived. In 2018, almost 700 farms shut down in the state, according to the USDA. This was the largest number of lost farms in any state.

Katie Wontach, an agriculture agent for UW Extension Dunn county, points out that traditionally, when milk prices are low, crop prices have been higher to help balance the market. However, she says that the last few years have seen both milk and crop prices take a hit, which has contributed to farmer’s struggles. One reason for the low commodity prices has been the decline in exports from the U.S to other countries.

“There’s been a huge decline in exports, especially on the soybean side that’s really been effected by the tariffs and the Chinese trade,” Wantach said.

After President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods in 2018, China swiftly responded by placing a 25 percent tariff on U.S soybeans in addition to tariffs on other agricultural goods from the U.S, such as pork.

“China’s been such a huge buyer of soybeans and corn over the years,” Steyer said. “To not have them in the market has really affected the commodity prices.”

Although the trade dispute is costing farmers in the short term, Steyer and others are hopeful that President Trump can rectify the issue and get more American crops back into the global market.

“I guess one of my hopes is the U.S-Mexico-Canda trade agreement gets passed by our legislation and approved by Canada and Mexico,” he said. “The President has been able to get a lot of things done that have surprised people, We’ll see if he can get a deal done with China.”

Rising costs of industry

One of the first things you’ll see when walking into the reception area at Alfalawn farms are the windows behind a desk looking into the parlor. The cows being milked are rotating on a giant platform, with their heads facing the middle of the rotary parlor.

Commodity prices only tell a part of the story though. As the price of crops and milk struggles to rise or stay steady, the costs of equipment for farms has risen in part due to the advancement of technology.

Steyer and Alfalawn Farms installed a rotary style parlor in 2015. Despite taking on a large debt, the new technology has improved the milking and lowered labor costs by $2 per one hundred pounds of milk produced, according to Steyer. He says that with the new parlor and various computer programs, the farm can track each cow’s individual milking statistics to help make the milking process more efficient. 

Still, technology has its problems. According to Steyer, recent power surges have knocked out some of the 60 computer boards that help keep the parlor operating, and replacing these boards can cost around $1,700 per board.

It’s not just milking software and equipment that’s rising in cost either. The cost of tractors, harvesters, and the various attachments used in harvesting has jumped as well. Although the price of operating tractors fell slightly from 2015 to 2017 according to The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the trend for the cost of tractors has been on an upward trajectory.

“Not only does the initial equipment cost more, but the repair cost also is more expensive than it used to be, Wontach said. She estimates the price of a smaller, less powerful tractor for general farm use to cost between $100,000 to $250,000.

Wontach says that a combine could easily be over $500,000 in cost before adding in the cost of attachments used for harvesting, It’s not uncommon, she added, for some of those attachments to cost between $100,000 and $150,000.

“Today’s farm equipment is really smart, just like smart cars,” Wontach explained. “The tractors, combines, harvesting equipment are very computerized. There’s a lot more engineering that goes into them and so of course the cost has gone up considerably.”

Wontach said that farmers would rely heavily on equity built up in their operations to afford investment in new equipment before the downturn. After the downturn, they have seen their equity decrease and have had to focus their resources on repairs on older, more mechanical tractors rather than invest in newer models.

“Newer equipment requires more computer savvy mechanics, but a lot of times the older equipment is more valuable because it doesn’t have those computers in there.” she said.

Empty or abandoned barns are becoming more common throughout the state as more farmers call it quits amid an industry downturn. © Nate Scheuermann 2019.

 

Aging Farmers in a Changing Industry

With more advanced machinery, computer software, and increased automation making its way into the farming industry, many farmers have found it difficult to implement the more modern tools of the trade.

“Its weeded out anyone who wasn’t a good business manager over the last five to 10 years,” Steyer said. “In the last few years a lot of good managers, people that are great farmers, great with cattle, are being forced out just because of the way the industry has gone.”

Steyer has been involved with agriculture since the 1980’s. His family’s ties to the industry can be traced back to his great grandfather in the 1850’s. While farming still depends on lessons learned from past generations, Steyer says he’s seen many farmers forced out of the industry because of the way it has changed.

“As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten to be more and more of a business,” said Steyer. “It’s a business in that the business has to be run like a business.”

As the industry continues towards tech and automation, some farmers could be faced with a tough decision. The average age of farmers in Wisconsin has risen to 56 years old, and with many nearing retirement age, the demographics of farming could soon look very different.

Wontach mentioned how younger generations have embraced the increased use of technology in farming, and that while some older farmers may be resistant to the change, some of those farmers have embraced learning about and implementing new  technology.

“I think the younger generation is really challenged by the cost right now. It’s a lot more difficult for the younger generation to come into farming,” Wontach said. “The farmers we do see coming in are maybe part time farmers that maybe have off-farm employment.”

Despite the challenges of starting a new farm from scratch, Wontach said she can see a path into the industry through the diversification of local farms.

“More part-time farmers are having beef cattle, sheep, goats, and then certainly in the crop side,” she explained. “We’re seeing more different types of agriculture.”

With the uncertainty of their operation’s future, farmers have seen an increase in metal health issues and suicides. According to Chelsie Smith, a public health nurse for Eau Claire County, farming has traditionally had a higher rate of suicides. However, she says that an exact number is difficult to determine due to the nature of death reporting on farms.

“We would be able to track farmer suicides if it was documented. It has to be documented on the death certificate that they were farmer, or if it were to happen around farm equipment or on a farm,” she said.

Smith says that some suicides may be considered a farm accident due to the lack of any written notes or social media posts that would hint at a suicide.

After losing so many farms in 2018, Wisconsin’s dairy industry is facing a challenging end to the decade. Farmers like Dave Steyer could continue to face uncertainty until the commodity markets are settled. Likewise, the integration of technology and questions surrounding who could take over small family farms only adds to difficult circumstances.

Steyer remains optimistic that the farming community can persevere and become a thriving industry once again. Until then, farmers will continue to rely on their work ethic and sense of community.