Wisconsin farmers have had a tough few years. Recent investments could help reverse this trend.
An extremely difficult profession for decades, farming in Wisconsin has only become more difficult in almost two years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Difficulties in finding sufficient manpower. Increased spending. Sales of animals delayed or abandoned due to backlog of meat processing. Growing Mental Health Problems of Farmers.
These and other problems, added to the economic woes that have caused a record number dairy farmers to shut their doors and grain farmers to struggle even before the pandemic began, have created historic challenges for the state’s agricultural sector, said Randy Romanski, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Consumer Protection (DATCP) of Wisconsin. But recent investments from federal and state agencies are expected to help farmers as they continue to weather the challenges.
âObviously, there are challenges we still face because of COVID. Unfortunately, these did not leave, âRomanski said. âWhat we hear from farmers is that the prices they receive for their produce are going up in many cases. But the challenge is that their costs have also increased. Seeds, fertilizers, equipment, it’s all costing more this year.
Hardship during the pandemic, in addition to half a dozen years of costs exceeding income, is forcing farmers across the state to scramble to stay financially viable, Buffalo County dairy farmer Joe said. Bragger. While higher milk prices and a bumper grain harvest have provided a much needed increase in income, that money is being offset in many cases by rapidly rising costs, he said.
Fertilizers cost double or triple normal prices, he said, and a labor shortage means hiring costs are higher as well. Supply chain bottlenecks have drastically increased other prices farmers pay, he said.
âI’m told the costs are going to stay high for over a year,â Bragger said. âFarmers are going to have to be very careful about how much we spend on certain items. You really have to ask yourself with every purchase, is it worth it?
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Wisconsin farmers like Bragger are grateful to receive the highest grain and milk prices they have seen in years, said Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden. But in too many cases, “farmers are using this money to offset losses they have suffered for years,” said Von Ruden, a dairy farmer near Westby.
Other challenges, including a continuing shortage of meat processors, have left farmers waiting a year or more for their animals to be slaughtered, which has significantly slowed sales. A long-standing milk pricing policy that places Wisconsin dairy farmers disadvantaged and an agricultural market in which farmers often receive little money for the sale of their produce needs to be overhauled to allow more producers to be successful, said Von Ruden.
âRight now, taxpayers are paying for [agriculture subsidies] in addition to the higher costs in the market, âhe said. âIt’s really a question of how to get more money from the farmers. ”
Meeting infrastructure needs
Despite troubled times made worse by the ongoing pandemic, financial assistance is on the way for farmers who have been affected for years by low milk prices, uncertain markets, rising operating costs and now the pandemic, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said.
Vilsack touted rural project funding during a visit last week to a dairy farm near Cottage Grove in Dane County and Chippewa County Bloomer’s Town to promote President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill that has stalled in the US Senate. Bloomer will receive $ 27.6 million in loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program, part of $ 114 million to address drinking water infrastructure and other projects in rural Wisconsin.
âWhen we invest in rural infrastructure, we are investing in the livelihoods and health of rural America,â Vilsack said in a press release.
Bragger sees the benefits of spending on infrastructure in the hills of the city of Buffalo County, MT, where he lives and serves on city council. Most of the city has benefited from broadband upgrades in recent years, he said, and the city council is working to connect residents to high-speed internet in the part of town that does. is still lacking.
âI spent a lot of my time for an entire year at Zoom meetings,â Bragger said. âHere I am in the hills of this rural community, and I have one of the best connectivity you can imagineâ¦ We realize how important it is for everyone to have this access.
Investments considered key
Romanski said he sees signs of hope on the horizon in the form of state and federal funding and in the creative approaches farmers are taking to stay financially viable.
Combined $ 100 million coronavirus relief funding disbursed by Governor Tony Evers through the Wisconsin Farm Support Program helped keep many farmers afloat during the pandemic. On Monday, Evers announced that more than 20,000 Wisconsin farmers will receive nearly $ 2,500 each in Farm Support Program dollars, in a $ 50 million disbursement first announced in August.
âThis money doesn’t make anyone safe, but it has enabled farmers to pay a few bills and use the money they earn to pay for other costs,â Romanski said.
Earlier this month, Evers invested $ 30 million in food security payments to help two state food banks, Feeding Wisconsin and the Hunger Task Force, distribute food to people in need. These agencies will get in touch with farmers to involve them in the program.
âIt’s a great way to connect the dots and bond with Wisconsin farmers,â Romanski said. âThere is a continuing and ongoing need to help those who are food insecure. “
Romanski said his agency is also working on plans to increase the number of meat processing plants in Wisconsin. The state recently hired two meat inspectors and plans to hire two more soon, he said. Six meat processors have applied for grants to expand their facilities, and Romanski has said he expects more to do so.
Addressing the shortage of processors is key to increasing farmer animal sales and hopefully curbing high consumer meat prices, Von Ruden said. He said negotiating changes to the federal Farm Bill to manage the supply of produce to avoid oversupply and simultaneous low prices is key to helping more farmers survive financially.
âWe are seeing some interestâ¦ in getting a system that will benefit everyone involved, from the farmer to the consumer,â he said.
“Building on our successes”
Von Ruden said he sees other opportunities next year that could benefit farmers. He praised the Biden administration for seriously considering competition issues in agriculture. Tackling what are essentially monopolies in agricultural sectors, such as the meat industry, would reduce supply chain problems, he said.
âThere are too few people who own the production systems that we have,â he said.
He said he is encouraged by a growing number of young farmers enter the business. More and more farmers of all ages are finding connections with customers, in some cases through local food movements, said Von Ruden.
Romanski said such partnerships can help deliver more nutritious food to customers while providing much needed new markets for farmers. The Farm to School program, in which DATCP, WFU, and the state’s Department of Education work to connect farmers to their local school districts, has grown in importance as schools are struggling to get food for student meals. Two bills to raise funds to better connect farmers and school districts are expected to go to the state legislature next year.
âThe governor would also like to build resilience with this issue,â Romanski said of school feeding programs. âWe are trying to connect these dots at the regional level. If we can find a school that needs a particular food item, and there might be a farmer on the road who can provide itâ¦ we want to make those connections.
Designing new approaches to help farmers will be key to preventing more of them from going out of business, especially as pandemic-related issues appear likely to continue into the next year as crops grow. COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin in recent months and the recent spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, Romanski and Von Ruden said.
âCOVID and the challenges it presents are still with us, unfortunately,â Romanski said. “But with investments in agriculture and new ideas and approaches, we look to the next year to try and find more ways to come together to build on our successes.”
Bragger agrees with this sentiment, saying some farmers would not always be in business without the COVID-19 aid funding. He said he was optimistic about possible changes to the milk pricing formula that would benefit Wisconsin dairy farmers. And he’s inspired by the resilience farmers have shown, a feeling he says will be needed next year as well.
âOf course, these are difficult times,â he said. âWe just need to stay together and support each other, and we’re going to be okay with it. ”