Why farmers farm

John Oncken
Many of the farming basics have changed but the reasons for farming have not.

2020 is gone and it was indeed a strange year for dairy farmers. It began with rising milk prices followed by the pandemic and a short period of milk dumping as dairy processors found themselves with too much cheese and no place to put it.

In short order, farmers were back producing milk at full blast as cheese hit near-record prices at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange only to again decline but soon to return to a rising market. In November, the Class III (cheese milk) price set a record high for the month at $23.34. The Class III price for December will fall by more than $7 to below $16, but will still average about $18.25 this year compared to $16.96 last year.

Some year-end stories told of a “bad year” for dairying but those who know better (dairy farmers included) saw it as an overall “pretty good” year for the dairy farming segment of Wisconsin agriculture. Crop farmers saw near record corn and soybean yields as good weather pretty much offered favorable growing conditions and are seeing rising prices (maybe) as the new year settles in.

Century farms are not unusual in Wisconsin and are a sign of families who worked together successfully.

Why farm?

A friend of mine – after reading a story about a multi-generation farm leaving the dairy business – asked me why anyone would want to be a farmer and face so many challenges like weather, labor, ever-changing milk prices, economics and politics, while milking cows twice a day, every day.  

As long as the shelves are full consumers may not think a lot about where milk comes from.

That’s not an easy question to answer but a conversation with a friend some years ago might be a start. 

No one there

Many years ago a friend and I were playing racquetball in Sun Prairie and during a pause in the game I commented that I was rather disgusted and disgruntled because I had been trying all afternoon to contact a government office but got nothing but voice mail messages referring me to other phone numbers or to leave a message. I finally concluded that being a Friday afternoon, everyone in that office had gone home.

A cow must depend on the farmer for feed and comfort.

They left early

I jokingly asked my friend – who held a rather prestigious government job in one of the big Madison office buildings – “does everyone leave on Friday afternoon?”

“Probably just about,” he responded. “My wife and family have a cabin up north near Hayward and I generally leave the office, pick up the family and head there on Friday afternoon. We get there late at night but I’m up early the next morning and get out my tools and fix windows, paint what needs painting and do lawn work. All day Saturday and until Sunday noon, I am working, fixing things and then heading back home arriving late at night.

It’s about satisfaction

“Why do you travel so far and work so hard over the weekend?” I asked.

“Well, because it is satisfying and the things I painted look so good, and the things I fixed now work,” he began. “My wife and kids tell me how good I am at painting, fixing and doing things. And, I can see that I accomplished something in spite of the challenges I’d faced to get things done!”

What did I really do?

“I have a  good, steady government job with great pay and benefits but it’s really just shuffling paper in a computer. I never see or even talk with the people who use our services or even know if we did a good (or bad) job,” he continued. “If I or one of my employees need a computer repaired or need office supplies, we just call and someone comes to provide or fix whatever we need.”

The results of a successful year may be stored in bins.

“I really am bored with my job and would quit and start over if it wasn’t for my retirement program that has grown over the years and if I was younger,” he added. “I wish I was a dairy farmer and worked with animals and crops and could see them produce food for people.”

About farming and rewards

I told him farming was not all that rosy and we continued our racquetball match. But, that night and occasionally ever since that decades old conversation, I’ve thought about what my playing partner said and how it applied to farmers and farming.

Chances are, the cows on a small dairy depend on the owner for feed and care.

Challenges and rewards

First of all, dairy farmers face constant challenges – no two days are the same. Secondly, farmers must overcome those challenges or they don’t last long in the dairy business. Last but not least, farmers of all kinds see results head on – milk production at least twice a day (at about 23,000 pounds per year, per cow average); happy, healthy cows; new calves; crops shooting up after a nice rain; 200 bushels per acre corn and best of all, a spouse/partner helping at every turn and kids growing up showing calves at the fair and learning about nature, agriculture while growing up.

Farm kids often learn about life while in the show ring.

Not all about money

No, farming is not purely based on big financial profits. Rather it’s about facing sometimes unsolvable challenges and pride in finding a way around: providing care and comfort for animals; producing food for people and enjoying the often silent praise from milk drinkers, cheese eaters, the county fair cattle judge; the dairy plant, organizations and general public. 

Although farmers may often complain, they do indeed like what they do and see the results all day, every day. And unlike my racquet playing friend, they can’t always leave early on Friday and return home on Sunday; the livestock needs them and even with a mega farm the livestock, employees and business needs them.

Thanks for the food!

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications and can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at