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None of the three panelists discussing the 'State of the Dairy Economy' at the recent Wisconsin Dairy Business Association's Dairy Strong conference were overly optimistic about the next couple of years for Wisconsin dairy producers in light of the dramatically-lowered milk prices.

Bob Witt, senior lender at WellsFargo Bank, said his Midwest ag customers are 'still making money in spite of the lowered milk prices, but not as much.' Expansion has ended in southwest U.S. and has come to a near halt in the Midwest, he added.

David Rinneard, regional ag lender for BMO Harris Bank agreed that the dairy economy has markedly slowed but that there is still some expansion, especially in robotic milking systems.

Mary Keough Ledmen, a private consulting dairy economist, reviewed the various dairy products and found little to cheer about what with a surplus of cheese and major cuts in dairy exports as China and Russia pulled out of the market.

'I would not add even one more cow without consulting with my dairy processor (not my banker),' she said (The crowd chuckled at that comment). 'Land O'Lakes has limited their producers milk sales in northeast U.S., and other co-ops could follow.

'Dairying will have to 'muddle through' until demand catches up with supply. We'll just have to hunker down.'

A joint effort

Another session centered on Dane County's Yahara Pride Farms, a farm/city conservation program aimed at reducing phosphorous in Madison's lakes. (Note: The Yahara river flows through rich farmland from the north into Madison's famed four lakes.)

Jeff Endres, Waunakee dairy farmer and chairman of the organization, explained that beginning in 2011, ag representatives met with members of the Clean Lakes Alliance for a year before focusing on a direction.

'Although agriculture was very active in conservation, not many people knew it,' Endres said. 'It's not about farmer versus nonfarmer, it's honest discussion.'

'As a 501(c)3 organization, we can get grants,' explained Bob Uphoff, panelist, member of Yahara Pride Farms board and Madison hog farmer. 'We have a budget of $250,000, part of which is used on a cost-share program with farmers on specific environmental projects (up to 40 acres per farm).'

Endres added, 'We saw that nonfarmers were leading the environmental discussion and felt agriculture should be involved. Farmers want to be sustainable and profitable, without severe regulation.'

Elizabeth Katt Reinders of the Clean Lakes Alliance pointed out that the organization is not only about agriculture or clean water, 'It's a quality-of-life issue.'

Sustainability has many meanings

A seminar that drew much interest centered on 'Sustainability and customer buying trends: How can the farming meet evolving expectations?' It included a seven-member panel representing various aspects of the food industry and moderator Michael Specter of the New Yorker magazine.

The group agreed that consumers define 'sustainable' in many different ways — same for the other current buzzwords words, such as organic, natural, local and non-GMO. But, no one came up with an answer to where and how consumers can learn about food production and how food is handled.

Greg Zewald, former partner in Bomaz Inc., a 1,300-cow dairy, and since 2012, owner of White Pine Berry Farm in River Falls, said that when he explains such subjects as GMO and organic to customers face to face, they understand.

Kim Kroll, from the 1,300-cow Rolling Hills Dairy in Luxemberg said, 'Water is important to us and is continuously tested in order to sell Grade A milk. People should know that. We are a fifth-generation farm. Isn't that sustainability? All the food we produce is natural. Getting people who know so little about food and where it comes from to understand is the problem.'

Each of the panelists pretty much commented on the lack of understanding on the part of consumers, but none had a solution as how to actually educate them.

Lauren Lindsley, dietitian at Onalaska-based Skogen Festival Foods, which has 21 stores in the state, said her company has conducted food tours and produced videos in efforts to educate their customers. She also pointed out that sustainability and nutritious are not the same, something that is often confused.

'Has anyone ever pointed out the advantages of being a big farmer?' asked Steve Peterson, formerly with Pillsbury and General Mills. 'Or, related that farmers have always looked long term, something others are just beginning to talk about?'

GMOs are controversial even in the context of sustainability, said Steve Richter of The Nature Conservancy. 'There are so many misconceptions out there, and to get through them, I think the big food companies who are part of the ag food supply chain … need to get involved and help tell the story of what's happening on today's farms.'

What is sustainability ?

Here is how Merriam-Webster defines sustainability: 'able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.

Wisconsin has a century farm program honoring family farms, of which there are hundreds. Multi-generation farms, including most of the mega farms, are common across the state and every Wisconsin farm is planned as 'long term.''

What business or organization can make those claims? How does agriculture tell this to the world? The panel had no real answers.

Listen, learn and offer

The Dairy Strong conference had much to offer the ag folks who braved the winter's coldest days to listen, talk, learn and 'network' with their peers.

I talked with a good many dairy folks and found a rather upbeat outlook — not a surprise in this group of elite dairy producers.

Heinz Roth, who attended the conference with his nephew, Luke, milks 450 cows with his brother Erich. He said, 'We have to watch expenses and cut spending without hurting milk production. We changed our calf ration and ended up saving a lot of money.'

I also had a most interesting talk with Blake and Janell Heller, who, with son Cody, milk 1,000 cows at Alma Center. We didn't talk cows — rather about barefoot water skiing.

The Hellers are not only longtime dairy producers, but their Cowz 'R Us professional barefoot waterski team, made up of brother and sister Cody and Elaine Heller, are big-time competitors. They practice on Blue Moo Lake, a half-mile-long lake created on the farm specifically for barefoot water skiing.

The Hellers, Cowz 'R Us and Blue Moo Lake will host the 2016 World Barefoot Water Ski Championships Aug. 15-20 (See cowzrus.com).

The DBA continues its vision to build a sustainable future for Wisconsin's dairy community and its mission to ensure that dairy farmers large and small have the support they need to thrive in the state's economy, communities and food chain.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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