As dairy farms in Wisconsin continue to close, dairy farmers cite low milk prices and plant-based product competition

Credit: Nighthawk Shoots from Unsplash. Medium shot of dairy cows in a barn. 

By Morgan Bluma 

          WAUKESHA, Wis. – Patty Edelburg, a Wisconsin dairy farmer, grew up on a dairy farm her father had bought when she was one. When Edelburg was a sophomore in college, her father made the tough decision to sell her family farm. 

           In 2008, Edelburg bought her farm along with her husband from her neighbor. She milks about 120 cows twice a day for three hours starting at 5 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. Edelburg said she did not intend to go into dairy farming after college.  

           “I honestly didn’t think I would ever stick with dairy farming,” Edelburg said in a phone interview. “I thought I would be one of these go off to college and find something else to do. Well, I went off to college and got an animal science degree and ended up getting back into farming.” 

Chart: Morgan Bluma. Source: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

Edelburg, like many other Wisconsin dairy farmers, faces a dilemma. Whether to continue farming in a market that is overflowing in dairy production while making very little money. In 2019, Wisconsin lost 773 dairy farms and so far this year, 326 more dairy farms have been lost, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, dairy consumption has increased over the last five years. In 2019, Americans consumed 653 pounds of all dairy products, the largest amount since 1975. 

Former Pennsylvania 7th generational dairy farmer Mike Eby had to make the painful decision to sell his farm in 2016. He said this was because “milk wasn’t worth what it cost to make.” Eby said the decision was difficult to make because no matter his decision, he would need to talk with his son as he would be the next generation to take over the farm.  

        “I had to make a decision,” Eby said in a phone interview. “Do I go forward and prepare this farm for the next generation investing at least a half a million dollars plus, plus the purchase of the farm, I hadn’t even bought the farm from dad yet, or do I get out? And that decision, regardless of which way I went, was going to have a major impact on the next generation.” 

           Edelburg is in a similar situation. She said her son wants to take over the farm and she was wary because of how difficult it is to sustain a living.

            “My son really wants to take the farm over and we’re very much like, ‘Wow. Do you really?’” Edelburg said. “This is a big fight I’m not sure anyone wants to tackle when it comes to working like crazy and not being able to make a living.”   

            So, even as dairy consumption has been increasing, dairy farmers continue to struggle to make ends meet. Eby, who is also the chairman of the board for the National Dairy Producers Organization, said milk is a commodity and it is based on supply and demand. If there is more supply than demand, milk prices will be negatively impacted for the producer. 

            Edelburg agrees. She said the biggest thing that has been driving farmers to sellout is the dairy market prices. 

           “The dairy market has been so oversupplied,” Edelburg said. “There is so much more milk on the market than there is demand. So, the prices have just been really low and farmers can’t sustain those low prices for that many years.”

            The National Dairy Producers Organization (NDPO) is a nonprofit that provides representation to more than 35 thousand U.S. dairy producers to change milk prices that will maintain profitability for dairy producers. Eby said he is frustrated with the lack of representation for farmers in the dairy industry. 

           “My disappointment in all of this is the true leaders of the organizations that could have a difference, make a difference for the individual producer, for his profitability levels,” Eby said. “Specifically, the cooperatives seem to have taken a back seat to the interest of the producers.”   

              A dairy cooperative is usually owned, operated and controlled by dairy farmers who would benefit from its services. Members of a cooperative help finance and then share in the profits they earn from the volume of milk they market. Eby said the role of NDPO is to educate producers on how to work with their cooperatives to change how producers are being represented. Eby said many producers are frustrated because their interests are not being represented in the cooperative.  

            “It seems like everyone else’s interests are represented ahead of the producers,” Eby said. 

Director of Marketing and Communications for FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative Julie Sweney said a cooperative represents its members and puts their best interests at heart. She said that the next generation has to decide if they want to invest time, energy and money into dairy farming. 

“Dairy farming is just very labor-intensive,” Sweney said in a phone interview. “So, not to say that no one is interested in taking over the farm, but I think sometimes the next generation would like to do things differently but they know that there’s a lot of investment that’s needed for little gain.”

Sweney also grew up on a dairy farm and she knows some of the farm families that are represented in FarmFirst. FarmFirst is made up of three longstanding dairy cooperatives that represent farms all over the Midwest working to improve dairy policy, marketing opportunities and industry involvement. She said FarmFirst regularly reviews the results of their farmer’s tested products to examine the components of their products to help pay them fairly. Dairy farmers are paid based on the volume and components of their products such as proteins, butterfat, milk solids, lactose and more.    

            “We make sure that all the tests are in line to make sure that our farmers are getting paid fairly,” Sweney said. “So, if all of a sudden, it drops really low or there’s an outlier where it looks like there were crazy tests and it’s like, well what happened here. We help settle any discrepancies to make sure that our farmers are paid fairly.”

            According to the National Family Farm Coalition, farmers are paid $1.45 per gallon for milk that costs them $2.00 to produce. Retired corporate accountant and life-long farmer in Michigan Joe Arens said part of the problem is that the whole process of selling and producing dairy in the dairy industry is too complicated that farmers feel trapped. 

            “It’s a very, very complex process and I think that’s part of the problem,” Arens said in a phone interview. “A lot of farmers, when it comes to really digging into what’s happening and being active in their own co-ops, they’re so overwhelmed with the complexity of the pricing formulas and everything that’s going on. They just throw their hands up and go home and add a few more cows, which is just what they shouldn’t be doing.” 

            Arens helps with his son’s 400 cow dairy farm and said his son had a lot of issues with his cooperative because of a lack of transparency. Arens is a member of the NDPO and said change in the dairy industry needs to happen otherwise it is a losing battle for most family farmers.

            “Why should our farmers continuously be motivated and finically pressured to expand and expand and expand into a market that can’t absorb all what they produce?” Arens said. “So, what we’re trying to do is educate cooperatives.” 

             The other concern dairy farmers have is the competition of non-dairy products in the industry. Ipsos Retail Performance conducted a study that found nearly 9.7 million Americans are following a plant-based diet. 

            President of Alliance for Animals Rick Bogle has been vegan since 1972 and said that regardless of the size of the dairy farm, it is inhumane to use cows for milk because cows can only produce milk after they have given birth. To keep cows producing milk, they are artificially inseminated within a couple of months after giving birth. 

            “A cow shouldn’t be producing milk for her entire life,” Bogle said in a phone interview. 

            Alliance for Animals is a non-profit animal rights organization that works to promote ethical, compassionate treatment of all animals. Bogle said that the competition from plant-based products is having an impact on the dairy industry.  

            “I do think though that there’s something to be said about the competition,” Bogle said. “The competition must be having some sort of effect because politicians have introduced bills to try to make it illegal to call these plant-based products milk or cheese.”

            Arens said a need was created through animal rights groups, global warming and health, which has created a demand for different forms of traditional milk products that are plant-based.  

            “By creating a need, I think there is a lot of fabricated science out there that creates this health need and how about oak based milk?” Arens said. “Doesn’t that sound healthy. Now there’s money to be made on those things. And to me, oak based milk, any of these fake milks they got out there are, again, you’re manipulating what’s natural, it’s not as good as whole dairy but wow, billions of dollars in sales.”

            Bogle said he does not think people consume dairy products for its nutritional value. 

            “I don’t think most people who buy milk and eat cheese are doing it out of health consciousness,” Bogle said. “I think most of them are doing it because it’s tradition. They grew up drinking milk and eating cheese, so that’s what they buy at the grocery store.” 

            Another concern is water quality in areas of dairy farming. Water Program Director for Clean Wisconsin Scott Laeser said nitrate pollution from dairy farms is their biggest concern because it gets into people’s drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), excess nutrients from chemical fertilizers and dairy manure are a major source of water pollution. Laeser and his wife run an organic produce farm and said he understands the practical realities and challenges of running a small farm. 

            “All types of farms, including ones like mine, can cause water pollution issues,” Laeser said in a phone interview, “but the scale of large farms can pose some additional risks because of the severity of pollution occurrence that can result.”

            Edelburg said she lives in an area that has sandy soil which is more prone to nitrate runoff because they cannot hold as much water as clay soil. She said her neighborhood has been dealing with a lot of neighbors’ complaints of water pollution from a neighboring farm. Edelburg said farmers play a huge role in water quality in how they plant and harvest their crops and there are consumers that were fighting hard against local farmers.    

            “We’re trying to show them that farmers can be a part of the solution,” Edelburg said, “and we all need to work together and we need to focus on different ways to extend no-till cover crops and different ways to farm rather than how it’s always been.” 

            Many farmers like Edelburg and Eby work with different conservation organizations like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through their voluntary conservation programs to combat the pollution from their farms. Eby said he worked with the NRCS to help prevent his cows from entering into a nearby creek by planting trees and a fence around the creek and installed cattle crossing for him. 

            The State Conservationist for the NRCS in Wisconsin Angela Biggs said NRCS is individualized to the needs of the farmer and their conservation concerns. She said that NRCS has had an increasing number of farmers joining their conservation programs.

            “All the producers we work with, they are doing what they’re doing because they have an interest in the land and reducing pollution,” Biggs said in a phone interview. “If there are -whatever environmental impacts there are from farming, they’re working to try hard to not have negative impacts on the environment. Because the long and the short of it is that in order to have farming be their livelihood, they need to not have negative impacts out there because if they have negative environmental impacts that can affect their ability to farm.” 

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