Push for Bigger and Bigger Farms Hurting Many in Wisconsin
Cows graze at a farm near Blanchardville. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Those eligible will receive between $1,000 and $3,500.

Nearly 15,000 Wisconsin farmers applied for aid from the Wisconsin Farm Support Program during the two-week application period, a sign of continued struggles in the agriculture sector during the coronavirus pandemic and before, the state’s top agriculture official said last week. 

According to state Department of Revenue statistics, 14,543 state farmers signed up to receive funding from the program from June 15 to June 29. Program money is allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

More than 3,000 farmers applied for financial assistance through the program during the first day of the sign-up period, nearly 9,000 in the first week; and the rate of about 1,000 daily is indicative of how farmers are hurting financially since the pandemic began in Wisconsin in March, state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Randy Romanski said. 

The large number of farmers who signed up for the program shows “there is clearly a big need out there, and farmers are stressed,” Romanski told UpNorthNews

Program payments are available to farmers who had gross income between $35,000 and $5 million in 2019. Farmers who qualify would receive one-time direct payments of between $1,000 and $3,500. Disbursements will be made based on incomes and are expected to begin in mid-July, Romanski said. 

Gov. Tony Evers announced the $50 million program in May. DATCP is partnering with the state Department of Revenue to oversee the program. 

Romanski acknowledged the per-farmer payment through the program isn’t nearly enough to offset losses experienced by farmers since the pandemic shut down the economy for a time and disrupted farmers’ product supply chain.

Farmers already faced challenges before the pandemic, he said, and Evers’ administration is working to get money directly into their hands as quickly as possible. 

“This direct aid payment will not make farmers whole,” Romanski said, “but it is meant to provide some relief.”

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Joe Bragger acknowledged money from the program won’t be nearly enough to make up for lost income he and other farmers have experienced during the pandemic. Bragger is among farmers who applied for program funding. 

“But right now any money farmers receive will help,” said Bragger, who owns about 800 acres in Buffalo County, where he milks 350 cows, raises chickens, and grows crops on his farm. “That money can help farmers pay some bills, help keep them going.”

Terraced planted corn on a farm near Barneveld. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Many farmers are applying for other COVID-19-related federal funding too. For example, in May they began seeking money from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Applications will be accepted until Aug. 28 and more information about the program is available at www.farmers.gov/cfap.  

Still, farmers said they worry that money isn’t enough to help many get through the financial difficulties that began well before the pandemic. In recent years Wisconsin has lost a record number of dairy farms as ongoing low milk prices have forced many from the business. 

Grain prices have also been depressed, and overproduction as a means to make farmers more efficient and viable has driven down prices. 

Those challenges have been exacerbated by the trade policies of President Donald Trump’s administration that have closed export markets to farmers in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States. Previous administrations had worked to expand those markets, and Wisconsin farmers grew exports in recent years in such nations as Canada, China and Mexico. 

Now other nations, such as Brazil and Argentina, are providing such products and corn and soybeans to those countries that were sold until recent times by farmers such as Craig Myhre, who grows crops on his farm south of Osseo in Trempealeau County. 

“We worked hard to develop those markets, and now the Trump administration has destroyed them,” Myhre said. “My fear is that we may have lost those markets for good.”

An analysis by the organization Tariffs Hurt the Heartland shows Trump’s tariffs have cost Americans $42 billion between February 2018 and October 2019. The loss to Wisconsin during that time was $827 million, and losses have continued since then. 

With so many farmers already facing difficulties remaining in business, Myhre said he worries the pandemic likely will force even more from the profession. He said he has reduced production at his 800-acre crop farm by 200 acres this year because of low prices and plans additional cutbacks next year. 

“Why would I grow those crops if I know I’m going to lose money on them?” he said. 

Bragger also worries about farmers surviving the pandemic-related economic downturn. Many farmers are just getting by, he said, and while milk prices recently climbed to about $20 per hundredweight, they are extremely volatile and could drop again, as evidenced by the fact they recently were as low as $12. 

“Right now we’re just trying to hang on and get through this,” he said.