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'America's Dairyland at the Crossroads' explores the challenges facing Wisconsin's family farms

Aerial view of american countryside landscape. Farm, red barn, cows. Rural scenery, farmland. Sunny morning, spring summer season
Stock Adobe
Aerial view of american countryside landscape. Farm, red barn, cows. Rural scenery, farmland.

Dairy is a part of the DNA of Wisconsin. It is, afterall, America’s Dairyland. But this agrarian heritage has faced a lot of challenges over the last few decades, and the state's future in dairy is facing an uphill battle as farms face an uncertain future. A new documentary by Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explores the many challenges facing farmers in Wisconsin and the economic and emotional impact it’s had on its rural communities.

The documentary, “America’s Dairyland at the Crossroads,” looks at the current state of the dairy industry and how it's changed over the last century.

"There were literally thousands and thousands of small dairy farms in Wisconsin [in the 1930s]. Then, as people over time moved to the cities, there were fewer of those small farms. Then, they got bigger, they were more productive, and you didn't need to have as many of them," says Rick Barrett, a business reporter for the Journal Sentinel, whose work is featured in the film.

For Milwaukee PBS editorial producer Maryann Lazarski, the experiences caught on camera for the documentary were eye-opening. The hard work and emotional labor were evident. For example, one of the families featured in the film is the Schmitz, who owned a dairy farm for generations but had to close it because of financial hardship.

"They're so kind to share their story because I think they still really believe in the small family farm, but it's heartbreaking. So, it's about family, it's about history, it's about your legacy," says Lazarski.

One of the most significant issues is milk prices. Barrett says farmers may not know their milk price until two weeks after leaving the farm. But cows need to be milked at least two or three times a day, regardless of how much money that milk will make.

"Their check might cover all of their expenses one month, and then the next month it comes short. Then next month, it's higher, then next month it's lower. It's this roller coaster ride that they're on," says Barrett.

Unlike some other countries, in the U.S., the government doesn't set milk prices, making prices more unstable. Although not perfect, the system in Canada can help farmers plan a year ahead at times, says Barrett. But it also means that farmers who make more milk than the commission allows are penalized.

The government hasn't identified a clear solution to the issue of milk prices in the U.S., but politicians like Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, point to diversification as a possible solution. Diversification could mean a variety of things, according to Barrett.

"It could mean just about anything and everything you can think of that they can do with the land; anything to give them [farmers] a little more stability in their income. It can try to offset some of these price fluctuations when the price drops. They've got something else that will keep them going," he explains.

After putting the film together, Lazarski and Barrett both agree that the future of dairy farming will likely be different for each family farm.

"The one family that has the young children, they were very honest about having to be able to change in order for their children to want to continue [the farming business.] When you talk about technology, and you talk about the young generation, they're interested in technology. Maybe that's the answer. For many families, it really is kind of an individual decision," says Lazarski.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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