MILWAUKEE -- Gina Stokes says she will keep fighting for her family’s dairy farm, where the cows have names, not numbers, and the land tugs at her heart.
“There is no better place to raise my family,” Stokes said about her farm, near Omro, Wis., that she and her husband, Dan, have with their four children.
“It’s a fair representation of what true life is," Stokes said. "I cannot expose my kids to anything more real than the struggles, the benefits and the responsibility we all take in it.”
Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017, and about 150 have quit milking cows so far this year, putting the total number of milk-cow herds at around 7,600 — down 20 percent from five years ago.
Last month, more than 50 groups from across the country — including the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Family Farm Defenders and the National Family Farm Coalition — asked Congress for emergency relief from the deepening troubles on small dairy farms.
Among other things, they want the government to set a minimum price that farmers would get for their milk — at a break-even point of $20 per hundred pounds, or about 11 gallons, compared with $13 paid in some months of the downturn.
They’re seeking a milk supply management system to stabilize volatile markets. And they’re asking the government to purchase surplus milk for use by emergency food providers, such as food pantries.
Some of the solutions may seem extreme, but so is the crisis that’s rapidly eroding America’s rural economy and threatening families, according to the farm groups.
“The milk checks are not covering the bills,” Stokes said of her family's dairy operation, which has about 75 cows.
Yet there’s strength and defiance in her voice as she talks about the value of small family farms and why people in the city might buy more milk if they knew the stories behind them.
“What you are going to find here is love. You are going to find animals that are treated like our children and that get more pampering than the adults on this farm,” Stokes said. "If I have to cut back on something to make sure the bills are paid, and say a few more prayers, that's what I'm going to do because I am a lifer in this business."
That last notion, at least, is often expressed by farmers searching for answers in a crisis that threatens their way of life as well as their livelihood.
Suicide worries in dairy country
The situation has become so dire that dairy marketing cooperatives have started providing suicide hotline information to members along with milk checks.
Yet critics say the proposals being put forth to save family diary farms could make matters worse.
“I have always felt that the market is the best way to sort out the amount of milk required,” said Mike North, president of Commodity Risk Management Group in Platteville, Wis.
Creating a minimum price, especially without supply management, could encourage farmers to ramp up milk production in a market already awash in it.
“It’s a very temporary fix followed by the same headaches down the road,” North said. “Any time the government becomes the leading decision-maker of how much is produced, you immediately ruin a market.”
Some of the farm groups cite Canada’s dairy system as an example of how milk supply management, coupled with price controls, has kept small farms in business.
But Canada has its flaws, too, said Gordon Speirs, a former Canadian dairy farmer who now milks about 2,000 cows in Brillion, Wis.
“I can tell you that it doesn’t run as smoothly as they would like you to believe. Seemingly every year they are trying to change the rules … to deal with overproduction or underproduction or meeting a quota,” Speirs said.
“All of those things we have witnessed happening in the U.S. are in fact also happening in Canada, just not as quickly.”
Still, Speirs sympathizes with farmers’ complaints about the U.S. government’s Dairy Margin Protection Program, which is kind of an insurance policy for farmers when their milk price plummets.
“It’s like a safety net that is hanging five feet above the ground when you are jumping off the Sears Tower. It’s not going to save you,” he said.
'Too damn good'
Dairy farmers face tough decisions when milk prices are low because producing more lowers their cost on a per-unit basis but adds to the oversupply problem.
Even as the number of dairy farms has fallen, milk production has soared from better cow genetics and improved livestock feed.
“We are just too damn good at what we do, as an industry,” said Speirs, who is on a committee of farmers advising Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative in Green Bay, Wis.
Small farms say the milk surplus has crushed their market, even at some local cheese plants that used to buy from them, but now get cheaper milk trucked in from Michigan and other states.
“We have non-farm income to keep us afloat, so far. But it feels like we’re one bad decision, or one bad weather event, from falling off the edge,” said Randy Wokatsch, a dairy farmer near Wausau, Wis.
“Prices are already adjusting themselves,” said North, with Commodity Risk Management Group.
“That’s how these markets work. They ebb and they flow,” he said.
Looking to supply and demand
Not everyone agrees.
Some farm groups say the dairy industry is not a marketplace where the supply-and-demand equation sorts itself out naturally, because it’s driven by government policies.
“It’s absurd to call it a free market,” said Kara O’Connor, government regulations director for Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“Our nation’s supply of milk badly exceeds the demand,” O’Connor said.
Most agriculture subsidies go to a few, but very large, agribusinesses, said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).
“Policy-makers have had their thumb on the scale, and unfortunately that scale has tilted away from our small and midsize farms for too long,” Kind said.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm group, doesn’t favor a minimum milk price or a supply management system.
There have been improvements made in the Dairy Margin Protection Program, and more changes are coming, said Kevin Krentz, a Farm Bureau board member with a 600-cow dairy farm in Waushara County.
Farm Bureau says it supports growth in the export of dairy products, and increased consumption of milk domestically, as ways for the industry to work through the price slump.
No government program is a “quick fix” for scores of dairy farms on the edge of shutting down, according to Krentz.
“That is the sad part about this, but it’s the reality,” he said.
Wokatsch and his wife, Kerry, milk 55 cows on their 330-acre farm.
He would like to see some type of supply management system included in the Dairy Margin Protection Program.
“I believe we can turn things around, or if not, at least slow the current trend. But this can only happen if farmers and non-farmers become informed, engaged and work toward the goal of saving the legacy of Wisconsin’s family dairy farms,” Wokatsch said.