The future of family farms and more

John Oncken
There will be more space and masks this year at the PDPW Business Conference...will there be a normal crowd of 1500?

“2021 PDPW Business Conference March 17-18, 2021, Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells.” That’s the headline in a recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) news release. And interestingly the word virtual is missing. And it’s not by accident because the event is in-person. Live and real.

To my knowledge this is the first major farm event to be held since about a year ago. Read on: 2021 Business Conference: “Discover” what awaits! 

The annual PDPW Business will go on live and in person.

This year’s conference features the best-in-class speakers, timely topics and innovative new ideas you’ve come to expect from dairy’s premier educational event. Held in a new location with new youth-leadership programming and the exciting Nexus™ innovation stage, the 2021 event will be one for the books. Register today and join us at the 2021 PDPW Business Conference, March 17-18 at Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

Your health and safety are our highest priority. The Kalahari Resort has been safely hosting in-person group events throughout 2020 and into 2021 and is well equipped to accommodate social distancing in all session formats. Capacities have been calculated for each room with seating arrangements that allow attendees to reposition chairs to ensure safe distances. Extra audiovisual equipment will also be set up in overflow areas and all food and beverages will be individually served by Kalahari staff.

PDPW will follow all current CDC-recommended guidelines throughout the conference, including providing masks and hand sanitizer in training kits for each attendee. 

I’ve had both my vaccinations and am tired of reading and watching TV...I think I’ll attend and see this first non-virtual event of the new era.

From milk cans to tankers picking up farm milk. What next?

All milk price down

The U.S. all milk price for January averaged $17.50, which is $1.00 below that of  December 2020. Nationally, 23 of the 24 major milk producing states also had a lower price when compared with December 2020.

The Wisconsin all milk price for January was also $17.50 per hundredweight. According to the latest USDA/NASS Agricultural Prices report, that was 60-cents lower than last month's price and down $1.90 from last January.

No supply management

USDA’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, during the recent National Farmers Union virtual convention, said new supply management programs might not get approval in Washington D.C. “I think the challenge there is whether or not programs like this can be designed in a way that doesn’t necessarily result in significantly higher costs to consumers because then it becomes politically difficult.”

Vilsack says when a program results in higher food costs, it is not long before opponents seek changes. The secretary says one possible supply management change being discussed is with the Federal Milk Marketing Order system. “I know that there are members of Congress that are, especially on the dairy side, concerned about the current system, that want a review of it, and I know that there are conversations taking place now about that. We’ll see where that goes.”

Note: The National Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Farmers Union have long been proponents of a dairy supply management program.   

A mid-sized dairy herd will get bigger in coming years.

96% of U.S. farms are family-owned

Family farms make up 96% of all U.S. farms, account for 87% of land in farms, and 82% of the value of all agricultural products sold, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology report released by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The farm typology report primarily focuses on the "family farm," defined as any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the producer and individuals related to the producer.

The data show that small family farms, those farms with a gross cash farm income (GCFI) of less than $350,000 per year, account for 88% of all U.S. farms, 46% of total land in farms, and 19% of the value of all agricultural products sold. Large-scale family farms (GCFI of $1 million or more) make up less than 3% of all U.S. farms but produce 43% of the value of all agricultural products.

Family corporations, yes

For decades the words “corporate farms” has been used by many organizations and individuals in describing the makeup of the agricultural community. Yes, probably most farms today are family corporations who have incorporated for legal reasons as they add sons and daughters to the farm ownership. 

Will non-farm corporations invest in large dairies?

As yet, non-farm organizations have not sought farm ownership in farm operations because of low financial return and management challenges. But I have often wondered if the time will come when non-farm corporations will become farm owners? 

Today, the large dairy farms - often with dairy cattle in the thousands are still owned by the original family expanders who created mega dairies beginning in the 1990’s. Many of these entrepreneurs are now in or approaching their 60’s in age and their dairy farm may be valued in the many millions of dollars. Many (maybe most) have sons or daughters who are increasing their management and ownership in the dairy farm. 

My question? What happens if their are no children or family members who want to be the next generation in the family to own the farm? Some guesses: 1) Like many businesses have done, it might become employee-owned or 2) sold to another farm operation or 3) (shudder) sold partially or fully to a non-farm corporation as an investment while retaining the family as managers and minority owners. That situation – where there is no family member willing or able to assume ownership – would open the door to an entirely new system of farm ownership.  

Historically, a small family dairy was passed on to a son or daughter.

Could one of those possibilities happen? I’d think yes. At one time, farms passed to a son and the parents moved into town or into a nearby residence while still doing some farm work and receiving part of the milk check as retirement income. Meanwhile farms expanded and their value increased as $5 million dollar buildings and hundreds and thousands of cows were added and farming as a way of life gave way to farming as a big business.

Just some thoughts — I’d like to be around 40 years from now and see what dairying is like and who owned what. But, whatever it is I’ll bet it will be frighteningly different!

John Oncken, owner of Oncken Communications,   can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at