Just days before they might have had to close, most of the Wisconsin dairy farms caught up in a trade dispute with Canada have found buyers for their milk, enabling them to stay in business.
At risk had been some 58 farms ranging in size from 80 to 3,000 cows, including many in Dodge and Jefferson counties and others near Fond du Lac and Sheboygan.
Grassland Dairy Products of Greenwood said it would stop buying from the farms effective this Monday because it lost millions of dollars when Canada changed its milk-buying practices to favor Canadian farmers at the expense of U.S. milk producers.
The move caught the attention of U.S. state and federal lawmakers, who sought a solution to the Wisconsin farmers' desperate situation and called for an investigation of trade pacts with Canada. President Donald Trump also weighed in, telling an audience in Kenosha last week that "in Canada some very unfair things have happened to our dairy farmers and others."
On Thursday, though, dairy farmers close to the situation said nearly all of the farms that lost their contracts with Grassland now appear likely to have new milk buyers by Monday, even if the agreements are short term.
Dairy farmer Jennifer Sauer, of Waterloo, said she fought back tears as she and her husband, Shane, signed a new milk contract with Rolling Hills Dairy Producers Cooperative of Monroe.
“It was just a ton of stress relief,” Sauer said Thursday.
The Sauers have a third-generation family farm that milks about 120 cows. Like others dropped by Grassland, they had been urgently calling all around to find another milk buyer, to no avail until this week.
“I would not wish this upon my worst enemy. It was a terrible three weeks,” Sauer said.
Some of the new contracts have come from Mullins Cheese of Mosinee, Rolling Hills and the cooperative Dairy Farmers of America.
State officials would not confirm the positive turn of events Thursday, although they said earlier that the situation was changing “hour by hour” and they were hopeful it would be resolved by the end of the week.
“We know that we are making really positive strides,” said Karen Gefvert, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
Some of the farms won’t get prices as good as they’ve gotten from Grassland, and their new contracts may be for only a few months. But it’s enough to keep them in business while they pursue other options.
Nineteen of 23 displaced farms represented by Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative have new contracts.
“We are still working to confirm the status of the remaining farmers,” said John Pagel, president of the Green Bay-based cooperative, and a dairy farmer in northeastern Wisconsin. “What we’re hearing elsewhere is that the majority of farmers have found buyers, too.
“So, overall the news is positive. But until each and every one of these farmers has a buyer for their milk come Monday — and long-term solutions are in place — the work is not done,” he added.
The displaced milk is estimated at 1 million pounds, or about 116,000 gallons, a day. That's milk that farmers otherwise would have had to dump, because cows have to be milked two or three times a day whether or not there’s a buyer for the product.
Individual farmers, such as Carrie Mess of Watertown, stepped up to help their neighbors find milk buyers.
“There’s still more work to be done, but we are getting there,” Mess said.
The situation was a near crisis because most milk processing plants already were running at full capacity and weren’t accepting more farms.
Rolling Hills said it made the difficult decision to take on a couple of the farms even though it didn’t need the additional milk now.
“We felt we needed to at least do something, since some of these farms have been going on three weeks to find a buyer, and they weren’t getting anywhere,” said Micah Ends, operations manager for Rolling Hills. “As far as we’re concerned, they are now members of our cooperative. As long as we have markets to send their milk to, hopefully they will be members for a long time."
While some farmers remained nervous about saying they had new milk contracts until everything was finalized, the tone in the dairy community was much improved Thursday.
“We are hearing some good things, as they’re going to stay in business, keep milking cows and continue as family farms," said Andrea Brossard, a dairy farmer from Dodge County. "That’s encouraging."
Brossard is part of Dairy Girl Network, an online information source for dairy farmers that's been very involved in helping farms caught in the Grasslands dilemma.
A lot has happened in the last 24 to 48 hours in landing milk buyers, according to Brossard.
"Now these farms can focus on keeping their business going and working towards goals. That's what we like to see," she said.
Still, a few of the displaced farms probably won’t find buyers before Monday. The Farm Center at the state Agriculture Department has a “situation room” where staff members are talking with dairy plant owners, trying to connect them with the remaining farms.
There’s also a “Plan B” in the works, according to Gefvert, of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. No details have been released, and the plan is only tentative. But it could include finding milk haulers to pick up the product from the displaced farms in hopes of finding a processor for it.
“We will keep working as hard as we can to find a home for their milk,” Gefvert said.
Canada has said it’s not to blame for the crisis; it faults American farmers for producing too much milk in a global marketplace flooded with it. But U.S. authorities, including Trump, have said the Canadian dairy system is choking off sales of Wisconsin and New York milk in Canada.
“We need to get at the root of the problem,” said Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Washington, D.C. “There are long-term ramifications that aren’t as visible as a few dozen farms all of a sudden losing their markets. The longer-term impact will affect a much larger number of America’s dairy farmers from coast to coast.”