Farming: Finding light at the end of the tunnel

Darin VonRuden
Wisconsin Farmers Union
Darin VonRuden is a dairy farmer from Westby, WI, and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

Coming into the New Year, the issue weighing most heavily on my mind is the farms we lost in Wisconsin in 2017. It was big news in 2015 when Wisconsin dropped under 10,000 dairy farms. Again this spring, the ag industry and consumers alike rallied around dairy farmers when news broke that Grassland Dairy Products, Inc. was going to drop farms and potentially put dairy farm families out of business.

But what about the hundreds of other dairy farms we lost throughout the rest of the year? Concern over what’s happening in our dairy industry seems to ebb and flow with the news cycle.

Disappearing farms

Altogether, we lost 465 dairy farms in Wisconsin in 2017, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. And to me, those farms aren’t just a statistic. They’re real families.

Yes, some farmers may have aged out of farming and retired, but how many others were forced out by volatility in dairy prices? By rising input costs triggered by growing consolidation in our ag sectors? By land prices that are on the rise, in part due to investment in agriculture by foreign and outsider corporations?

How many more farms do we stand to lose in 2018? And if farm losses continue on this average of 400-500 farms per year, where will we be a decade from now? Who will control our food supply and the land across the countryside? That’s the big issue to me and one that should be of concern to all farmers and consumers. 

Hard financial year

Looking at the futures markets and supply forecasts it’s looking like 2018 will be another very hard financial year for all commodities in Wisconsin. Dairy farmers are not alone in the struggle, as overproduction continues to push down market prices in all commodities.

Providing farmers with the tools to manage this overproduction is the central issue facing farmers. So what’s the solution? As we continue to see consolidation in both the supply and processing sides of Agriculture, farmers are faced with fewer choices to buy inputs and less options to market their crops and livestock. I believe that we as producers can change this, but first we must take responsibility for our actions and focus on producing to market needs.

Saturated markets

American farmers have been told for decades that we need to "Feed The World.” But who has been telling us that? Is it hungry people from other countries around the world? Is it foreign governments who are primarily interested in developing their our agriculture? Or is it multi-national corporations that have no connection to any country or community other than the shareholders and the bottom line of the corporation?

In recent travels to World Farmers Organisation meetings I’ve heard and seen first-hand that more and more farmers around the world are feeding their own countrymen but are facing the same challenges that we face here in the U.S. – the “Middle Man” continues to tell us farmers that we need to produce more. The result – we’re saturating our markets at no benefit to the family farmer.

So how do we change this? Can we and should we develop new products and new markets? Of course. But I think we also need a bigger focus, to insist that our international trade agreements address fair prices and not just increasing trade volume.

We need more emphasis on developing our domestic markets and increasing diversity and sustainability in our production practices. And maybe most importantly, we should insist that on access to responsible oversupply management programs, particularly in the dairy industry.

I believe we’d be wise to bring back the cooperative model that built the rural communities that are now struggling. We need a business structure that keeps the dollars in our local communities. Competition helps build stronger communities and helps us become a better nation.

Can we see the light at the end of the tunnel? I believe we can, if we work together to build our local economies and implement smart policy that ensures stable markets for all farmers.