In full-throttle agriculture, farmers get hurt

Chris Holman, who farms near Stevens Point, Wis., says it’s been going on for years, and it’s getting worse.

A regional director for the group Wisconsin Farmers Union, he points to the recent crisis in which dozens of dairy farms lost their milk buyer and were nearly forced out of business in a marketplace flooded with their product.

The buyer, Grassland Dairy Products of Greenwood, said it dropped the farms May 1 because it lost millions of dollars of business in Canada.

Dairy plants and farms in New York also were affected by a loss of Canadian business – prompting President Donald Trump, state and federal lawmakers to call for an investigation of trade pacts.

All but a couple of the Wisconsin farms that had contracts with Grassland have since found another milk buyer.

Yet Holman says Canada was wrongly blamed for the crisis. He and others argue the situation stemmed from U.S. agriculture running at full-speed, nonstop, regardless of the consequences.

He points to state programs, such as “Grow Wisconsin Dairy 30×20,” as having compounded the problem.

“Beyond pushing dairy farmers to reach 30 billion pounds of milk production a year by 2020, the initiative – with no sense of irony – provides grants to improve the long-term viability of Wisconsin’s dairy industry,” Holman said.

In 2016, Wisconsin dairy farmers produced slightly more than 30 billion pounds of milk, or 3.5 billion gallons, for the first time.

While the number of Wisconsin dairy farms has been declining for years – to about 9,230 now from 14,265 in 2007 – milk production has increased as farms have become bigger and more efficient

The new production milestone came even as the global market was awash in dairy products and prices paid to farmers were depressed due to the oversupply.

“Full-throttle agriculture” has some farmers drowning in milk.

“When you have farmers themselves saying there’s too much milk out there, you know that’s a problem,” said Steven Deller, a University of Wisconsin-Madison agricultural economist.

Now, even some farmers normally against intervention in the free market are calling for some type of supply management system to help keep things in balance.

When markets are up, dairy farmers increase production to take advantage of higher prices. Then, when a glut of milk drives prices down, they milk even more cows in an effort to generate more income – although it further depresses prices.

“If that’s not a recipe for more of the same, I don’t know what is,” Holman said.

Small and midsize farms are being forced out of business by these kinds of cycles, according to Holman, whose Nami Moon Farms raises poultry, meat, vegetables and honey that’s sold to restaurants and at public markets.

“This all has a predictable end,” he said, with big farms and multinational conglomerates eventually controlling much of U.S. agriculture.

State officials say the money they’ve poured into agriculture over the years, with efforts like Grow Wisconsin Dairy 30×20, has benefited farms of…

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