Small Farmers See Little Hope and No Future for Their Livelihood
Paul Adams is one of 300 dairy farmers who has had to sell his farm and go out of business this year. Cows at his organic dairy farm in Trempealeau County were loaded onto trailers on March 2 and shipped to a farm in Texas. His family had farmed that land for nearly 150 years. (Photo by Julian Emerson).

Trump’s trade wars and tariffs, low milk prices, COVID-19 putting farmers, cheese producers out of business. 

Each time she heads to the barn on her 400-cow dairy farm in Columbia County in southern Wisconsin, Sarah Lloyd wonders how much longer she and her husband can stay in business.

The Lloyds and other farmers in Wisconsin and across the United States have had their lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Fears of the virus spreading caused the temporary closure of the dairy industry’s biggest customers. The beef and pork industries were similarly hard hit as meat processing plants were closed because of the virus and the supply chains for farm products were disrupted.

But farmers in Wisconsin and elsewhere faced financial struggles long before the pandemic. 

Grain prices have been depressed for the past six years, and the amount of money dairy farmers receive for their milk has remained low during most of that time as well, forcing more than 800 dairy farmers out of business last year alone. Another 300  have lost their farms so far this year. 

Wisconsin farmers and those nationwide have been hindered by trade policies of President Donald Trump’s administration that have greatly reduced markets for farmers to export their products, creating a supply glut that has driven prices down further.

Now, as farmers continue to feel financial pressures made worse by the pandemic, Lloyd questions the viability of her dairy farm going forward. 

“We’re going broke,” Lloyd said during a Tuesday night panel to discuss the status of dairy farming in Wisconsin organized by the group Opportunity Wisconsin, an organization advocating for an economy that benefits more people. “It’s been a really rough ride.”    

Like Lloyd, Les Danielson, who grows corn and soybeans and milks a small dairy herd on his rural Cadott farm in Chippewa County, has struggled for years to remain in business. Long-depressed grain and dairy prices have made it increasingly difficult for him to turn a profit. 

“I don’t want to sound like ‘woe is me,’ these prices are so low for farmers,” Danielson said Tuesday as he milked his cows on his farm in rural Cadott. “But that is the reality of the situation. This has gotten really bad. You worry about the individual farmers, how long they can keep going.”

Trump’s trade war with China has created significant financial pressures making it difficult for many farmers to stay in business. For the past three decades, Democrats and Republicans in the White House have focused on expanding global trade, and prior to Trump taking office, Wisconsin farmers had grown export markets significantly, most notably in Canada, Mexico, and China. 

But Trump’s tariffs have greatly reduced farm product exports from Wisconsin and elsewhere across the United States, creating a backlog in this country, further driving down prices. 

An analysis by the organization Tariffs Hurt the Heartland showed Trump’s tariffs have cost Americans $42 billion since the trade war started in February 2018 through October 2019. The cost during that time for Wisconsin was $827 million. 

Anna Landmark, co-owner of Landmark Creamery, criticized Trump’s plan for dealing with COVID-19, saying his lack of leadership has not only cost lives but continues to hinder the agriculture economy. (Photo provided)

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a La Crosse Democrat, said Trump’s tariffs have been disastrous for farmers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and he supports reopening trade. He also criticized the federal farm bill that provides most of its commodities to large agribusiness and little to family farmers most in need of assistance. 

“It hasn’t been good for our family farmers,” Kind said of federal agriculture policy. “They just can’t compete with these big interests … It is something we clearly have to change.”

Paul Adams knows firsthand the damage federal ag policy can cause to farmers. In March he sold his 1,000-cow operation located in the rolling hills north of Eleva in Trempealeau County. His family had farmed the land for the past 148 years but he could no longer make ends meet with his organic dairy operation.

Like most farmers, to stay in business Adams expanded his farm significantly and profited for a time by entering the organic market. But the Trump administration relaxed organic grazing rules, allowing much-larger farms to enter that market and driving smaller producers like Adams out of business. 

“Along came this administration and said you don’t have to follow the (organic) rules,” he said. 

Lloyd said farmers are caught on a “treadmill,” having to grow to stay competitive but producing more in the process, which increases supply and reduces the amount of money producers receive for their milk. Adams agreed, saying his herd once consisted of 30 cows. By the time he sold his herd he employed 20 workers to care for his cows. 

“I didn’t like the way it was growing bigger and bigger,” Adams said. “It was time to get out.”  

Producers of dairy products are struggling financially as well. Anna Landmark, co-owner of Landmark Creamery near Belleville southwest of Madison, said her cheesemaking business is hurting amid COVID-19. It is adversely impacted by the same structural problems that face the dairy industry. 

“Where we put our federal and state dollars really matters,” she said in reference to agriculture subsidies that most often support large producers and businesses. 

Landmark and other farmers criticized Trump’s plan for dealing with COVID-19, saying his lack of leadership has not only cost lives but continues to hinder the agriculture economy. 

“There’s been no discernable plan at all,” Landmark said. “Our products are going to places that still have high (virus) infection rates, so if there are no safe plans for reopening, there will be no profit to come from that.”

Craig Myhre grows corn, soybeans, and hay on his farm south of Osseo in Trempealeau County. He said he has cut back production this year by about 200 acres because of depressed grain prices. He criticized federal ag policies that benefit big ag interests over smaller farmers and said the coronavirus pandemic has been like “salt in the wound” to an already-decimated agriculture sector. 

Myhre said he plans to grow fewer crops next year and will work more as a rural mail carrier because farming is no longer profitable. He yearns for the days when family farms dotted the surrounding hillsides, most of which have disappeared over the years, replaced by much-larger operations. 

“I never thought I’d see a day when farming would look like this,” he said. “It’s sad. I just don’t see a future in doing this for a living anymore.”