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Fewer young people eager to take over family dairy farms in Wisconsin

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MADISON (WKOW) -- New numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show Wisconsin lost 10 percent of its dairy herds in 2019.

Data from January 1, 2019 shows Wisconsin had 8,110 herds. On January 1, 2020, there were 7,292 herds.

The decrease is due to a number of reasons -- in some cases, all piling up on farmers who decide it's just not worth the struggle. Some farmers say it's because fewer young people are interested in carrying on family farms.

Gunnar Rielly is not one of those people.

"I'd get out of school, just want to go home and be with the cows," the 22-year-old said. "One more semester left to go, then I'll be home full-time on the dairy farm."

Right now, he's finishing up a degree at UW-Platteville that he'll put to use on his family's dairy farm in Darlington -- soon also joined by his younger brother.

But Rielly says many of his classmates have different ideas.

"They come from farm backgrounds, but they're not looking to take over the farms partially because what the markets are at and what the future may look like," he said.

Dustin Williams, vice president of the Green County Farm Bureau and an agribusiness instructor at Blackhawk Technical College, says right now working in dairy production isn't at the top of many young peoples' lists.

"With unemployment being as low as it is, record unemployment rates, there are jobs everywhere," he said. "Really good paying jobs that a lot of young people can go and make a lot of money."

That's taking the family away from the farm, as Rock County farmer Doug Rebout is experiencing firsthand.

"They don't have the next generation that wants to be on the farm," he said.

Rebout is President of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, though his family farm has always included dairy.

He says fleeting interest from younger people and a hard time finding outside help is causing him to reconsider having cows at all -- something he's seen other farmers go through.

"They love doing the fieldwork," he said. "They love the farm, but the dairy is a totally separate mindset."

Rebout says a lot has been said about the struggle of farmers, but he's trying to look at the glass half full.

"Don't look at it as a negative," he said. "Be happy for the farmer because he's making a decision that is best for him."

According to Williams, new technology allows farmers to produce more out of less, keeping up with ever-changing consumer demand (for the moment).

He's most worried about the loss of farming culture and the hit to the local economies where the farmers live.

Rielly says a big motivating factor for him to carry on his family's legacy is there's nothing quite like milk from a family farm.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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