Abandoned house

An abandoned farmhouse stands just outside of Pigeon Falls in rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. The number of working farms continues to shrink, and farmers are growing older.

It’s hard to avoid the darkness at this time of year as the days grow shorter. It’s dark when leaving for work and dark when arriving home.

When I was young, a one-hour commute like mine across the same farmland would have been different in at least one way. The many barns along the roads would have had lights on as farm families worked on the morning or evening milking — which on our farm was at about 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The glow from the windows was a comforting sight in the early morning. There was hope in the darkness because there were others out of warm beds to face the day.

Those days are gone, along with the smaller dairy herds that once dotted the state. In 1965 the average dairy herd in Wisconsin was about 25 cows. There were about 85,000 dairy farms.

Today the average-size dairy herd in Wisconsin is 144 cows. There are 8,877 dairy farms. The big exodus in the dairy business was from 1995 to 2004, when the state lost an average of 1,355 dairy farms per year.

When I was young, you could drive up and down country roads and almost everyone was milking cows. Now you can drive for miles between dairy farms.

It’s not just dairy. In the most recent Census of Agriculture done in 2012, there were 69,754 farms in Wisconsin, a decrease from 78,463 in 2007. I wonder what the 2017 Census, which is coming our way starting in December, will show when results are released in 2019.

Farming hasn’t disappeared. It’s just changing. Some farms are growing larger. More land is leased. Our vision of the family farm — 94 percent of Wisconsin farm acreage is still connected to family-owned operations — is just different.

The debate whether that’s good or bad is ongoing, but there is one indisputable fact: Farmers are growing older.

In 1982 — the year I left the family farm to go to college — the typical Wisconsin farmer was 48 years old. The last ag census in 2012 showed the average Wisconsin farmer was 56. Nationwide the average age is closer to 60. Farmers really don’t retire, unless they sell their operations. I’ve known farmers who have milked cows well into their 70s.

Sometimes the farm goes to the next generation, which can help offset the high initial capital costs. But what about a young person who has no family connection and wants to start farming from scratch? The land, equipment and building costs — depending on the type of farm — can easily run into the millions of dollars.

A federal bill called the Young and Beginning Farmers Act was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill would attempt to expand access to affordable farmland, improve delivery of federal programs to new farmers, and increase investments in training, business development and local markets.

The Congressional Budget Office has not provided a cost estimate of the bill, but it has drawn support from several farm organizations, including the National Farmers Union and the National Young Farmers Coalition.

“Young people are stepping up and starting careers in agriculture despite significant odds,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “But they can’t do it alone. The future of farming and our rural communities depends on their success. We urge Congress to make young farmers a priority and include the Young and Beginning Farmers Act in the next farm bill.”

Earlier this year Minnesota approved a law supported by the young-farmers coalition that provides state income-tax credits to beginning farmers to help offset the costs of buying or leasing land, farm equipment and livestock. The farmers must take a farm-management class, which is also covered by the tax credit.

Perhaps it’s time for similar legislation in Wisconsin. A recent effort was a bill introduced in 2015 called the New Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program, which would have reimbursed up to $30,000 of student loan debt over five years for new farmers.

While that bill stalled, we need other efforts to encourage the next generation of farmers. Even though there are some who want to change our license plates, we are still America’s Dairyland.

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Former Tribune editor Chris Hardie and his wife, Sherry, raise sheep and cattle on his great-grandparents’ Jackson County farm.

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