Farm Aid Concert Comes To Wisconsin Saturday, As Dairy Farms Continue To Decline

Sep 20, 2019

The annual Farm Aid concert is Saturday at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre near East Troy, Wis. Performers include Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and many other musicians.

It seems like a timely location for the decades-old benefit series. That's because Wisconsin — still known to many as "America's Dairyland" — again leads the nation in farm bankruptcies, and many dairy farmers are getting out of the business.

About 40% of Wisconsin's dairy farms have disappeared over the last decade.

Across the United States, about 2,700 dairy farms closed last year. More than 25% of the shutdowns were in Wisconsin. About 500 more farmers in the Badger State have quit dairy so far this year. 

Consolidation of the industry, which is partly fueled by a long stretch of low milk prices, is nothing new here. About 40% of Wisconsin's dairy farms have disappeared over the last decade. But the pace of departures is increasing, and for many, remains a painful process.

READ: Amid Wisconsin Farm Bankruptcies, Farmers Promote Hope & Hard Work

For example, only a few barnyard animals are left at Wylymar Farms, outside Monroe, Wis. Owners Emily and Brandi Harris sold their 50 market-supplying milk cows in May.

"It was not an easy thing. It was a horrible day. We still, to this day, don't talk about them," Brandi Harris remembers.

Most went to a farm in New York that wanted cows raised to produce what the Harris' sold — organic milk.

It's a bit easier for the two women, who were in the dairy business for a decade, to talk about why they stepped away. Emily Harris says the relatively low prices the farm was getting for its milk made it impossible to keep up with the bills, including for maintaining equipment. 

Emily and Brandi Harris at their farm near Monroe, Wis.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"After 10 years of just using and using it, and not having money to repair anything, it just got to the point where all of our tractors needed thousands of dollars' worth of work," Emily Harris explains.

The Harris' also say their milk producers cooperative was offering them an unfavorable new contract. A bank offered them a big loan to do what many dairy farms have done — get much bigger. But the couple says they didn't want to become farm managers, or to take on the additional financial risk.  

Emily Harris says many of the other dairy farms in Wisconsin and elsewhere that are shutting down are small to mid-size operations, leaving a lot of huge farms or small hobby farms. 

"Where are the farmers? Where are the cattlemen — the people that enjoy it and love it and have a passion for it? Those people are gone," says Emily Harris, noting she recently took a job with an excavation firm.

All the small and mid-side farms may go someday, but not quite yet.  Wisconsin still has about 7,500 dairy farms, including some smaller ones with enough savings built up, or income from other sources.

Cozy Nook Farm, west of Waukesha, Wis.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

One such survivor is Cozy Nook Farm, outside of Waukesha. The Oberhaus family has been at this site for about 60 years. They have 70 cows. 

Tom Oberhaus says a big reason the farm is still in business during the low milk prices is that they also grow and sell 20 acres of pumpkins, and sell about 1,800 Christmas trees brought down from Northern Wisconsin each year.

"It's really sad that we take our pumpkin and Christmas tree money and we say it helps support our cow habit," Oberhaus says.

READ: Wisconsin Diary Farmers Say It's Go Creative Or Go Out Of Business

Yet, Oberhaus isn't considering kicking that habit and selling his dairy cows.

"Not really, no. You know, I'm an old German and hard-nosed and keeping the land going and the farm going is kind of the number one goal in our life,” he says.

Tom Oberhaus, of Cozy Nook Farm.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Oberhaus says he hopes President Donald Trump's tariff fight with China and other nations will eventually pay off for farmers. Some say the tariff battle has hurt overseas sales of U.S. dairy products

READ: Dairy Farm Losses In Wisconsin Could Mean Trouble For Trump

Oberhaus may also eventually get some help from state of Wisconsin politicians who have recently agreed to spend millions on dairy innovation efforts. The investment will pay off someday, says dairy policy analyst Mark Stephenson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"The dollars the state would put into this doesn't fix today's problem. The marketplace is going to do that before we ever could," Stephenson cautions.

Even so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that regional dairy business innovation centers will be created in Wisconsin, Vermont and Tennessee.

But it's unclear what the dairy industry will look like by the time any innovative ideas make it to the milking parlor. 

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.

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