Can family dairy farms survive? Over three recent conversations, 18 residents of Clark County, Wisconsin, talked about life on the farm and in rural communities dependent on farming. The recorded sessions were hosted by Riley Hebert of Central Wisconsin Broadcasting on behalf of the Local Voices Network. This story is based on those discussions. It was written by Philip Bennett of Frontline in Partnership with PBS Milwaukee.
When Maria Bendixen was 16 years old, the barn on her family’s dairy farm caught fire. She was showing cattle at the county fair when the news reached her. As she raced home, the farm in flames, she saw behind her a caravan of trucks and trailers from the fairgrounds, neighbors and strangers coming to help.
Maria: “What I remember most vividly about that was driving back from the fairgrounds to my farm, knowing that it was on fire, and seeing behind me all of the trailers and trucks from all the people at the county fair that had brought their trailers to bring their cattle to the fair."
"They didn't know where they were going to take our cows. They just knew they needed to go somewhere to get milk. And I remember just seeing that train back there and realizing what a community, agriculture really is and how much they care about each other. I think that was really the day that I was like, "I'm going to work in this field somehow."”
Today, Bendixen runs a company in Clark County, Wisconsin, called Cowculations Consulting, helping farms become more profitable. Meanwhile, bankruptcies and financial ruin have burned through the dairy industry, driving thousands of families off their farms.
Across Wisconsin, economics and demographics paint a discouraging portrait of the future of family dairy farming. Farms are going under at an alarming rate; nearly half have disappeared in the last 15 years. And younger people are simply going away, leaving rural communities and shrinking towns. The average age of farmers in the state is 58.
Spend a few hours listening to people who live in Clark County and you hear a lot about what’s ailing small farms: falling prices, overseas or industrial scale domestic operations, reduced consumer demand, punishing hours and labor shortages, an eroding cultural connection to the land, the allure for grown children of better opportunities in urban areas.
But you also get a more nuanced picture from younger farmers and their families. They talk about the community ties and independence that keep them in farming, their ideas of how to bridge a widening generation gap and their hopes to sustain a rural way of life, even as agriculture undergoes a radical transformation.
Eliza Ruzic is a dairy nutritionist who owns a 65-cow farm in Clark County with her husband. She says raising children on a farm balances the hardships and uncertainties of the work. She “can’t imagine raising them any other way.”
Eliza: “The last couple of years in the dairy industry, there's been a lot of times, I don't think there's been a farmer elder that hasn't thought, oh, maybe I should do something else, because it's just been really hard financially.
"It's a lot of hard work, mother nature throws a ton of curve balls at you, but then I watch my kids come on to the barn every night and play in the hay mill and build hay forts and play with the calves and take projects to the fair.
"I can't imagine really raising them any other way and actually being able to instill a work ethic and values in them. I'm not saying that you can't, I think it would be a lot harder. So yeah, raising my kids on a farm has probably been the biggest thing for me.”
But, echoing others, Ruzic’s not sure that she’d want her children to remain in farming once they grow up. “It’s just so hard,” she said.
Eliza: “So part of me leans towards Amy where I want to tell my kids, "Don't farm. It's just so hard." It's a great way to raise your kids, but at the same time there are a lot of days we say like, "Why are we doing this to ourselves?"
"The larger farm down the road is going to be able to feed those people, and we've talked about; do we get bigger to be more sustainable? But my husband doesn't like to manage people. He likes to manage cows and he likes to manage crops and he likes being his own boss."
"So, I think what is going to keep small farms are those types of people that just have the internal drive that they want to be their own boss, and they want to take care of the animals themselves and take care of the crops themselves. But, unfortunately, those are becoming fewer and farther between.”
According to reporter Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about 360 dairy farms went out of business in Wisconsin in 2020, a trend that has accelerated in the last decade. Clark County sits in the middle of the state and at the epicenter of the crisis. Cows outnumber people, and there are more dairy farms than in any other county in the state. Hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the local economy from those farms.
In conversations, farmers and family members talked about the conflicting emotions that come from having deep, personal connections to a precarious business and the pressures to preserve a way of life. Fatalism and humor mixed with resilience and determination.
Melissa Kono is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who works in community development and is raising a family on a farm. “Work-life balance,” she said, is not a farming staple.
Melissa: “I am married to a farmer. That means I'm also married to a farm. Depending on the day, I don't know which one I love or dislike the most, but it's challenging because I do wish that there was a little more balance and support, especially for farm families. Not only has it affected me personally, but a lot of what we do in extension is working with farm succession programs.
"So, I've had the honor of talking to the older generation, who's thinking about passing on the farm to the younger generation and all the challenges that are involved in that, financial concerns, but also work-life balance, which a lot of us struggle with no matter what our profession is, but I think that that's especially true for farmers. I mean, not ever having a day off, let alone a weekend off, can really take its toll.”
For some, becoming a dairy farmer meant deciding to return home after leaving the area for school or work. Matthew Tyler earned an associate’s degree before moving back to his family farm to work with his father, drawn by a sense of obligation and opportunity. Knowing he’ll one day run the farm “scares the crap out of me every single day.”
Matthew: “Yeah, that kind of did play a pretty big role. Wondering what would happen to the farm, if I didn't come back or what would happen with the farm. So yeah, that thought crosses my mind every single day.
"Knowing that I am the next generation, I am the next person to inevitably take over the family farm. It scares the crap out of me every single day, knowing that someday all that responsibility is going to be on my shoulders.
"But then again, at the same time, it also kind of excites me knowing that someday I will get that responsibility of delegating work, doing all the work and making sure everything gets done.
"And kind of when that time comes, it's kind of my time to make some changes to the things that I learned in college on how to possibly make our operation more efficient, make things go a little faster, may make our profit margins a little bit larger.
"So at the same token, it's scary along with kind of exciting to know that someday, yeah, that the weight of this farm is going to be on my shoulders. But again, that's kind of exciting and all of that. And someday this will be mine.”
[Next week: Part 2]
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.