Dan Stier: Small farmers face public health crisis

April 7, 2019

The State Journal Editorial Board’s editorial “ Dairy farmers need profits, not handouts ” last Sunday noted that “… dairy farmers are in trouble. Prices for their milk fell almost 40 percent from 2014 through last year. The prolonged price drop was more than many farmers could survive. Last year, nearly two Wisconsin dairy farms per day went out of business. It was a continuation of a long-term trend toward consolidation. In the past decade, the number of Wisconsin dairy farms is down by 40 percent, though milk production is up.”

Proposing help for farmers, the editorial states that “the 2018 Farm Bill established a much-improved program to support dairy farmers with a new insurance plan.” The editorial board claims that “this Dairy Margin Coverage insurance program should support farmers better than previous programs and should cost taxpayers less, too.”

I don’t know whether the insurance program is at least a partial solution for our farmers, but I do know they face a public health crisis. Occasioned by the stress and strain associated with falling milk prices, declining consumer demand for milk, unfavorable trade policy and mounting bills, farm families are increasingly confronting a variety of mental and physical health issues, most seriously includingsuicide. Elizabeth Rich, an attorney from Plymouth and president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund Foundation, says that “fifth- and sixth-generation dairy farmers are losing their farms; many are killing themselves. We can and must do better.”

The State Journal editorial accurately describes a “long-term trend toward consolidation.” Large corporate farms are not suffering. The shocking number of farms that went out of business over the past year were small family farms. If we don’t take immediate steps to effectively assist small farmers, a lifestyle and cultural identity that made Wisconsin “America’s Dairyland” since the 19th century will slide painfully into extinction.

Farming is an important part of my family history. My grandparents set out to make a living as small dairy farmers in east-central Wisconsin about 100 years ago. They suffered a major setback when losing their farm during the Great Depression. But because small family dairy operations recovered as a viable option, they were able to bounce back from that loss, and raise two boys (one of whom went on to raise his own family on the farm).

My grandma and grandpa never owned more than 60 acres, and never milked (by hand!) more than 12 cows. But the family farm let them enjoy a humble but long and happy life with their two sons, and ultimately daughters-in-law and 14 grandchildren.

My grandparents’ modest farm obviously could not survive today, and that’s OK. But substantially larger and more efficient small farms today don’t stand a chance without effective assistance. It may be that the Farm Bill’s insurance program will be financially helpful. In the meantime, though, a public health crisis for small farmers is a pressing reality.

Resources such as the toll-free crisis line at the Wisconsin Farm Center, the Farm Aid crisis line, and neighbors simply helping their neighbors are assisting farmers in crisis. Please find your own way to help. Let’s place the highest priority on ensuring that small farm families have a place to turn.

If we can’t save their farms, let’s do everything we can to save their lives.