The curse of the dairy economy claims another farm

Three dairy farms a day go out of business in Wisconsin, the dairy state. Like any business story, it’s a tale of low prices for milk and high prices for feed and supplies. It’s simple math.

But it’s hard not to feel for the people whose job is their life and always has been.

The La Crosse Tribune provides a great story of one farmer today — Ryan Dunham, of Westby, Wis., southwest of La Crosse.

The winter was too much. The farm economy too poor. He sold his herd at the end of April. He’s out of the dairy business.

Now, he’s facing the toughest question: “what now?”

He bought his first cow with money he earned by helping his dad harvest tobacco. He was 5 years old. When his father died, he bought the farm from his mom — the mom who used to milk cows by hand before she went to school in the morning.

Ryan had hoped to pass the farm along to one of his six children.

And he still hopes to get more cows again and start anew. But there’s that dairy depression going on right now.

The math of being a small dairy farmer, though, doesn’t work anymore.

“You start adding more cows, now you need more help but now you have expensive help, now you need more cows to pay the help but now all of a sudden you need more land, you need bigger equipment, and all of a sudden your margins start shrinking, and you start losing control,” he tells the Tribune. “It isn’t a family farm anymore.”

The stress of the volatile market, 18-hour work days between the tree and dairy farms, and the inability make ends meet took its toll on his family. Communication and trust between Dunnum and his wife broke down when she found out he wasn’t able to pay some of the bills.

“I feel like I let her down,” he said, his voice breaking. “Everything’s imploding and what do you do?”

He said it would take about $25,000 to get his dairy business rolling again, but banks are hesitant to provide a loan with only his equity as collateral, without evidence of a cash flow.

“He was upset,” he said of his 15-year-old son the night he sold the herd. “‘I said you know what? Maybe this is the end of the curse.’ Years, generations. The amount of work I put in to this.”

  • Hard life indeed. You get no breaks from the routine of early, long days – week after week, year after year. A family vacation means getting a neighbor to take care of things at home – a near impossibility for any real length of time. There are vet bills and equipment to maintain. Buildings need roofing. Feed prices can spike and break the budget. A blizzard can make it hellish to get everything done. And prices can fall, as they have now. It is no wonder that farmers are throwing in the towel.

    • Gary F

      I would love to be a farmer. But way, way too many factors out of your control that determine if you make money or not.

    • Jack

      Growing up in Mankato, I had several friends who were kids of farm families. Farm always came first.

  • tboom

    Farm economics is a really tough. It’s a business but it’s a business where the owner and owner’s family traditionally have provided labor, we all know labor prices are being squeezed. It’s a commodity business (my corn and soybeans are the same as corn and soybean worldwide; my milk is the same as California milk – don’t get me started on milk pricing in the US). Take a look at housing and automobile prices trends, multiply that by a bunch and think about the cost of farm buildings and farm implements much less land.

    It looks to me like farmers are going to get paid just enough to keep enough of them in business to produce slightly in excess of demand. It looked the same way to me 45 years ago, that’s why I’m not a farmer and why someone I don’t know who doesn’t live there owns the old home place (and I still miss it dearly every time I think about it).

    I’m really pulling for the farmers trying to differentiate their product and sell directly or nearly directly to the consumer, that could save the land and preserve a way of life.

  • Jim in RF

    Two friends of mine in Pierce County WI have shut down their 50-100 head dairies in past 6 months. One’s now driving a truck and the other is looking.

  • Frank

    In 2016, I’m told, many American farmers voted for a city slicker in the belief that he understood them and their problems, and that their lives would materially improve.

    When i read stories like this, I never, and I mean never, read that the writer asked if they are happy with their 2016 vote, or if they plan to vote the same or differently in 2020.

    Elections have consequences. So does the politics of resentment.