Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trouble, Down On The Farm

When I grew up in the 50’s in a small town in the Fox Valley, farmers were “rich”. They had lots of land; the “farm kids” who went to Hortonville High always had nice clothes and the best cars. Those of us who lived in town were vaguely aware of something called “chores”, and didn’t understand at a visceral level how much of a sacrifice the farm parents made to allow their kids to participate in after-school activities like sports.

The school board was dominated by farmers (they owned the land, and paid the big property taxes) and on Friday night on Main Street, as farmers came to town to put their milk checks in the bank, they’d greet each other in front of the bank by jokingly asking “are you puttin’ in, or takin’ out?” And the answer always seemed to be “Puttin’ in”.

Things have changed quite a bit.

In 1950, the state had about a hundred thousand dairy farms. Now, there are about 13 thousand. Many farmers are deep in debt, and they - and their bankers - are pretty nervous about it. When you factor in stuff like inflation, feed costs, equipment costs, and all the other costs connected with farming these days, you can make the argument that they’re getting less for their milk now than any time in the past hundred years.

A few days ago, during my lunch break, shared with my dog and the noon news on Channel 3 - a holdover from the days when every farmer came in from the fields or the barn to get lunch and the ag market news on TV - I saw Pam Jahnke’s ag update. She said it was just about the worst time for dairy farmers ever, and she’s not prone to exaggeration. I worked with her for years, doing news on her early-morning farm show heard on radio stations all over the state.

Like many farmers (Pam grew up on a dairy farm near Oconto Falls) she tends to be very direct in her dealings with people, but she has that indomitable optimism shared by farmers, and usually sees the cup as half full. She’s not an alarmist, and when she says things are bad, they’re probably really horrible.

My brother-in-law owns and runs a dairy operation (Scenic Splendour Farm) in rural Outagamie County, and even though I have 20 years of formal education, I get lost in a hurry when he tries to explain to me how milk prices work. You’ve got the feds involved. The state is involved. So-called experts are involved. You’ve got price supports and foreign markets and cheese markets and powdered milk prices. Commodity traders. Distance from Eau Claire. I can’t keep up.

Here in America’s Dairyland, we at least have a foggy idea of how a gallon of milk starts on the farm and ends up in the store. And I’d like to think that Wisconsinites do give a hoot about making sure the farmer who produced it, gets fair value for the product. But there are a lot of people in this country who have no real clue where there food comes from.

To those who choose not to pay attention to the plight of the farmer, I’ll echo what a wise person once said: unless you have an alternate source of food, you’d better start paying attention to what’s going on down on the farm.


  1. The Art of Farming
    Farming was possibly the largest guild in the world. I was going to define it as 'civilized' world, but farming doesn't need government or civilizaton to perform. Until the last 40 years it has resisted corporate control and was a cottage industry, free of Adam Smith ideology. Farming is poorly taught in school. Long apprenticeships and generational secrets or mysteries, passed on by family's 'master craftsmen'kept farming free and independant. Now,the bourgeois capitalist has crushed this bastion of free and independant art.

  2. for years we have been asked to support farm subsidies to protect the family farm. But a rational look at farm policy can only conclude that the more the government "helped," the worse the plight of the smaller farmers has become. Indeed, some 75% of all subsidies are recieved by about 20% of all farmers. No doubt the number of farms would have shrunk in any event, but the free market would reward the efficient, not necessarily the big.

    Ken Van Doren