The end of 2018 marks one of the worst years in recent memory for farmers in Wisconsin.
According to the latest data collected by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin lost 638 dairy herds in 2018. With a percentage loss of just over seven percent, this is the largest drop since data was first collected in 2004.
Farms continue to close around the dairy state nearly every day and Jim Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said there are a few root causes of the difficulties to keep family and independent farms open.
“It is human nature to try and find something at the cause of it,” Holte said. “The most obvious is the price farmers are receiving for their products. Regardless of what commodity a farm was in, the prices were challenging across the whole spectrum of agriculture.
“They are clearly in the low range and for the past two or three years they’ve been lower than desired. That’s the first thing that comes to mind, but weather is always a variable we can’t control and causes angst at times. There was too much rain at times, but you can’t plan for a rain of 6 or 8 inches. And in the same breath I found the rains could actually have been more frequent in some areas. Every aspect was just very unreliable.”
Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said in addition to the bad weather and lowering market prices for dairy products and products in general, recent diplomatic relations with other countries under the Trump administration have only been making the market worse for Wisconsin farmers.
“Economically, this was probably one of the worst years I’ve seen for farmers since the 1980s crisis and probably even close to what they saw in the Dust Bowl era,” Von Ruden said. “Most of it is due to overproduction. Pretty much all commodities are seeing overproduction in the United States, but in the trade wars we saw in the second half of the year from the Trump administration didn’t help.”
President Trump’s trade war with China, including adding billions of dollars in tariffs on U.S. agriculture exports, has farms who rely on foreign markets in addition to domestic struggling to keep their heads above water.
With all of the economic uncertainty of whether or not products will be consumed overseas after their production, Holte said the one word that plagued the Wisconsin farming scene in 2018 was “uncertainty.”
“There was a lot of uncertainty for farmers,” Holte said. “We were compromised on the Farm Bill and were compromised by President Trump. We’ve all become painfully aware that our markets are not just local or nationwide, they are global. Trading prices have a great impact on our farming, and we hope to have more reliable places to send our products because we feed a lot of people outside of this country.”
However, recognizing a need to stabilize the farming market in America, on Dec. 20, President Trump signed a $867 billion farm bill that will provide aid to U.S. farmers. While it isn’t certain how big of an impact this will make on Wisconsin farmers specifically, it is a step in the right direction in aiding Wisconsin’s farmers.
While the effects of the bill are still uncertain, Von Ruden said the key to a better 2019 for Wisconsin farmers is to find a new way to manage their products in-house.
“We need to figure out some kind of a supply system, whether it’s supply management or inventory management, but some way to make sure we’re not producing commodities that go to waste,” Von Ruden said. “We’re wasting a lot of time and energy producing products that probably shouldn’t have been produced in the first place.”
While 2018 was filled with decreasing market prices, less than stellar weather and uncertainty in the market place due to poor diplomatic relations with large overseas consumers, there is hope for the 2019 farming season to be a better one in Wisconsin if the 2018 farming bill is effective and overproduction can be cut down in whatever capacity possible.