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Digging Deeper: Challenges leading WI farmers to close dairy operations

PORTAGE (WKOW) — For more than a century, Wisconsin has been known as America’s Dairyland, home to more dairy farms than any other state.

There are about 7,600 dairy farms with 1.28 million cows. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection (DATCP) statistics show the industry contributes $45.6 billion to the state’s economy each year, boosting other industries, like manufacturing, veterinary care and construction.

Still, many farmers aren’t able to make ends meet right now, in a tough market.

Mark Heinze’s family has owned a dairy farm near Portage since 1972. He’s the sixth generation at Lewiston Farmstead. But earlier this year, the family’s dairy legacy had to come to an end.

“How long can you do this before you lose everything? You can’t. This is not sustainable,” said Heinze.

He and his wife Beth made the difficult decision to sell off their dairy herd in spring, after years of low milk prices and losing their processor, Grassland Dairy, in 2017.

“It was kind of a bittersweet day,” Beth told 27 News, about the day of their auction. “It was good to see so many people here to help support us, but it was just it was sad to see the cows go and then go through the barn at the end of the night.”

“We have huge opportunities and wonderful things I’m very grateful for on the farm, but to not be a dairy man anymore was a major change,” Mark said.

Wisconsin has seen an unusual number of farm losses, according to experts. State ag data shows 7,559 dairy herds in September 2019. That’s down from 13,037 in the same month ten years earlier.

UW-Madison Dairy Policy Analysis Director Mark Stephenson says Wisconsin is on pace to lose nine percent of farms every year, down from the usual rate of three to four percent.

“This is unusual to last this long. And so the cash reserves that [farmers have] had, have not been adequate to take them through this long period of time. That’s why we’re seeing farms failing right now,” Stephenson said.

He says there has been price volatility for the past 20 years and very low milk prices for five, so the farmers haven’t been able to catch up.

“What we’re seeing, I think, is something that’s more like not just a bump on a trend line, this is more like a deviation that’s bigger,” he told 27 News.

Prices are just one factor making it harder to run a dairy business. The costs of technology and labor, plus aging farmers with no one to take over the operation have also led to the closures.

Experts say operations have started getting bigger, producing more milk with fewer farms.

“Farms have been consolidating, they’ve been getting larger and larger over time. And many of our farms are not having children that are coming back to inherit or take over the farm,” Stephenson said.

It’s why work like his is more important than ever. He chaired the state’s Dairy Task Force, to help come up with ideas to improve the industry. One of the ideas that came out of it led to legislation, to spend nearly $9 million for a Dairy Innovation Hub at UW-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls.

Plus, experts across the UW System are constantly working to advance research to help farmers.

“A lot of what university research has done over the decades has been to develop new ideas, new technologies, about better feeding, better management, better genetics better, all kinds of things that have helped farms lower their costs,” he said.

UW-Madison is building a new beverage innovation facility at Babcock Hall this fall, where researchers will look into alternative uses for milk.

“It’s important for us to be that bridge between the world class research that’s going on to this campus and translate it to the industry,” said John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research.

Meanwhile, farmers are doing whatever they can to stay afloat.

The Heinzes aren’t giving up. They’re still running their farm without the dairy cows. Now, they’re selling beef directly to the community at the farmers’ market and online, baling hay and selling seed for farmers and experimenting with new crops.

“We’re certainly not out of the woods yet with our farm. But at least we’re in a place where we feel like we’re finally on a path that we have some control over and are optimistic about the future,” said Beth Heinze.

They’re holding out hope their sons can continue the Heinze legacy and they aren’t ruling out going back to dairy when they become more sustainable.

“Things are tough right now, but this is when the most opportunities come by, too,” Mark Heinze told 27 News.

For now, Mark and Beth are excited to come together with other farm families for a celebration and support of their industry, when Farm Aid comes to Alpine Valley on Sunday.

Click here for more information on how you can help farmers in the Midwest, as part of our Farm Aid telethon, and more coverage of Wisconsin’s Dairyland at a Crossroads.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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