How Wisconsin Farmers Sparked a National Movement to Reform Dairy Policy

Bobbi Wilson

Dairy Together Coordinator


A VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF DAIRY

Dairy Together embraces a vision to preserve and grow a vibrant agricultural landscape in Wisconsin and across the country; one where many farms operate at different scales to ensure a stable supply of food, use a variety of conservation practices to create a healthy environment, and generate enough profit for farmers and workers to make a good living doing something they love. We envision a future where the rural communities supported by these farms are some of the most desirable places to live.


Cattle graze by a Dairy Together sign.
Dairy Together is calling for fair prices and meaningful dairy policy reforms.

THE DAIRY PRICE CRISIS

In recent years, dairy news headlines have been dismal as a flood of milk on the market contributed to five years of depressed and volatile milk prices that eroded the quality of life for dairy farmers across the country. Over the last decade, the USDA recorded the loss of roughly 17,000 dairy farms, cutting the total number by nearly one third. Many of these farms have been driven out by government policies and industry practices that favor mass production of commodities over family farm viability.


Wisconsin dairy herd loss
We continue to lose about one dairy herd per day in Wisconsin, on average.

BUILDING A FARMER-LED MOVEMENT

Dairy farmers have been struggling through boom and bust price cycles for decades. The word “crisis” has become so familiar in farm country that it hardly registers alarm anymore. Nevertheless, the collapse in milk prices in 2015, coupled with the failure of both government and industry to keep them afloat, spurred dairy farmers into action. It sparked an interest in looking at solutions that would allow them to actually make a living on their farms.


In 2018, Wisconsin Farmers Union began connecting with dairy farmers and allies across the country to explore ways to reform dairy markets. It turned out, we weren’t the only ones. We met with a number of farmers and farm organizations that agreed we need to curb overproduction and level the playing field to enhance the viability of family farm agriculture. And so, Dairy Together was born.


Farmers talking to the media.
Dairy Together farmers gather to share their story with media.

DAIRY TOGETHER HITS THE ROAD

In 2019, Dairy Together held meetings from coast to coast to present a menu of policy options that would improve milk prices and keep family farms in business. We learned that the industry has done a really good job at convincing farmers that their value lies only in their productivity and that the only way to make money in dairy is to get bigger. We also learned that so many farmers were desperate for a different approach. While many expressed reservations about a Canadian-style quota system, farmers big and small, from California to Vermont, were interested in adopting a national program that keeps supply and demand in better balance.


Dairy Together farmers by a bus.
Dairy Together events across the U.S. have contributed to a strong coalition as we head into the farm bill.

DAIRY IS AT A CROSSROADS

The U.S dairy industry is changing at a rapid pace. Over the last twenty years, the prevalence of very large dairies has transformed the structure of the dairy industry. These farms can continue to expand while others go out of business in droves. The only dairy farms that are growing in number are those with 2,000+ cows, while every other farm size category is in sharp decline. Federal dairy programs were not designed with these dynamics in mind. If we want to have diversity in farm size, location, production methods, and conservation practices — and realize our vision of a sustainable farm economy — we need to coordinate growth in milk production so that one farmers’ decision to expand doesn’t drive someone else out of business. If we do nothing, the writing is on the wall for the vast majority of the 30,000 U.S. dairy farms that remain, locking us into a risky and uncertain future where just a handful of mega dairies supply all of our milk and dairy products.


Dairy Together has worked to empower farmers and educate consumers on the need for a fair price.

NEXT STOP: 2023 FARM BILL

Through the Dairy Together project, we have listened and learned from family farmers across the country and coalesced around an approach that is fair, effective, and politically feasible. With the Farm Bill due for reauthorization in 2023, we have an opportunity to reform dairy markets in a way that creates better balance and long-term stability. The good news is, the American philosophy around food and farming is shifting and the dairy industry will have to adapt. The “get big or get out” mentality that brought forth a system of large-scale corporate agriculture has run its course. The farm policies of the future will favor fair prices, rural resilience, diversity, and public health. The next farm bill is our opportunity to turn the corner and embrace these values as we usher in a new era for agriculture. I know a whole lot of dairy farmers who can hardly wait.


The movement seeks to ensure a future for the next generation of dairy farmers.
 

Want to learn how we can pull together to create change and keep dairy farms on the land? Join us at a series of Dairy Together events coming up in western Wisconsin.

Farmers and industry stakeholders are invited to join the conversation around the future of dairy in Wisconsin. Local chapters of the Farmers Union and Farm Bureau are collaborating on a series of Dairy Together events happening around Wisconsin in late March of 2022. The events aim to educate and rally farmers around potential dairy policy reforms such as the Dairy Revitalization Plan that could be achieved in the 2023 Farm Bill. Learn how we can work together to save dairy farms of all sizes.


The events will include a panel of local farmers and a presentation on the Dairy Revitalization Plan by leading dairy economists Chuck Nicholson and Mark Stephenson. Attendees will have the chance to use an app created by the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems to learn how growth management would affect their income.


Upcoming events include:


ABBOTSFORD: March 23, City Hall 203 N. 1st St, Abbotsford. RSVP here.


CASHTON: March 24, Cashton Community Hall, 811 Main St., Cashton. RSVP here.


CHIPPEWA FALLS: March 25, 2588 Highway 53, Chippewa Falls. RSVP here.



Each event will be from 11am-2pm. Lunch will be provided. Learn more at www.dairytogether.com.


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