A Wisconsin farmer works his field outside Marshall in early August. (Photo © Andy Manis)
A Wisconsin farmer works his field outside Marshall in early August. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Dollars sent to other states, trade wars, and a long delay from Congress leave agriculture no less precarious than when the year started.

As Wisconsin farmers prepare to cast their votes in the Nov. 3 election, they are mindful that even the tens of millions of federal dollars allocated for Dairy State agriculture because of the coronavirus outbreak could do little more than make a dent in an industry that has seen the plummeting of consumer demand, the crushing impact of pre-pandemic trade wars, and the mismanagement of coronavirus aid that has gone to large farms and other states while the best many of them could hope for was a $3,500 check that was used up many months ago. 

Funding to farmers from the Wisconsin Farm Support Program and the Food Security Initiative totaling a combined $65 million helped more than 15,000 farmers pay bills and other costs as the pandemic in March shut down schools and businesses, reducing customer demand for farmers’ goods and disrupting the product supply chain. 

However, additional financial assistance is sorely needed as coronavirus cases across the state continue to climb and as farmers, many of whom were struggling before the pandemic, continue to do so, agriculture officials said.

Congress provided initial funding to farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation as part of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, but much of that money went to large producers, leaving many mid- and small-size farmers without the assistance they needed. Another round of CARES Act funding, including dollars for farmers, is being debated but has been delayed in the Senate despite the fact the Democrat-led House of Representatives approved the $2.2 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency (HEROES) Act in May that contains aid for agriculture.  

“The amount of money we’re talking about with these payments from the federal government, it helps, but it’s not enough to keep farms operating,” Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden, who operates an organic dairy farm near Cashton, said during a recent interview. “And now the Senate isn’t helping at all. Farmers are really struggling, and they need more help.”

The Farm Support Program (FSP) provided $50 million in direct payments to 15,249 farmers across the state, helping them pay farm-related expenses. Payments ranged from $1,000 to $3,500 per farmer. Another $15 million in Food Security Initiative (FSI) funds were used to connect food producers and distributors. That money gave farmers with pay for their products and to 17 nonprofit agencies statewide, including food banks, that provide food to people in need. 

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President and Buffalo County farmer Joe Bragger praised the funding he and other farmers received through the Farm Support Program and Food Security Initiative. Those payments helped pay a few bills but aren’t a solution to the ongoing struggles farmers face amid the pandemic, he said. 

“Times have been really hard for farmers for the past five years,” Bragger said. “You’re not going to make up for that with some payments over a short period of time. It’s going to take a lot longer to fix the challenges farmers face.”

Farm policy in Wisconsin and elsewhere across the country has garnered headlines in recent months as the pandemic has revealed problems with existing agriculture policy, such as too few meatpacking plants and an inflexible supply chain. The disbursement of farm-related dollars that in too many cases went to large producers and not small farmers in need has prompted the ire of politicians such as US Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). 

In stark contrast, US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said farmers need to operate larger, more efficient operations if they want to remain in business. He backs President Donald Trump’s tariffs that have reduced overseas markets for US farmers.   

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s “Plan For Rural America” includes plans to do away with tariffs and reopen markets for farmers, promote biofuels, expand broadband access that is insufficient in many rural areas, and improve health care for people living in rural America. Republicans have criticized his past trade stance, saying it creates unfair pricing for US producers. 

Even before the pandemic hit the state in March, Wisconsin’s farmers already were struggling, with nearly 800 dairy farms going out of business last year and grain prices at low levels, DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski said. Getting them money as quickly as possible as the economy struggled was a priority, he said.

“It wasn’t going to make anybody whole, obviously,” Romanski said of FSP and FSI grants, noting they were intended to serve as a bridge to Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) dollars farmers have received from the US Department of Agriculture. “But it helps provide additional funding for farmers at a time when they have really been affected by the pandemic.” 

While FSP and FSI payments weren’t enough to keep farmers operating, they had another benefit, Bragger said. 

“What it did do, in the depths of the crisis, it showed the state’s commitment to the farmers out there. It showed that we were valued, and that was a real emotional boost to farmers,” he said

Despite that aid, Wisconsin farmers face ongoing challenges as the pandemic continues. Many have wracked up significant debt after crop harvests being hampered the past few years by record fall rainfall that prompted flooding in some areas. Continued low milk, meat and grain prices made turning a profit challenging, he said, and President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs reduced demand for Wisconsin farmers’ products overseas. 

Prices were predicted to rise this year, and farmers were looking at bouncing back. Then the coronavirus hit the state in March, and farmers suddenly struggled to keep their businesses operating. 

Grain prices have improved recently, and milk prices did too, although farmers are losing much of that higher milk pay in the form of a producer discount that is part of a longstanding, complicated federal milk-pricing formula that keeps that figure artificially low in Wisconsin. While Bragger said this year was generally good for crops and he and other farmers are grateful for a dry fall harvest, farmers continue to struggle. 

“All of us are really hurting. There is still, for all of us, a huge cloud of uncertainty,” Bragger said. 

While additional government aid will help farmers in the short term, more must be done to keep more of them in business into the future, Bragger and Von Ruden said. The pandemic has revealed shortcomings in the current system, such as the need to reform dairy pricing policy and to have a more diversified, nimble supply chain, they said. 

When that chain was broken in the spring and stores could not stock some items, buyers were prompted to purchase some food from farmers locally. Von Ruden and Bragger said they would like to see that practice, which he believes would benefit farmers and consumers, become more commonplace. 

“This crisis has clearly identified the need for local food sourcing,” Von Ruden said. “We need people to continue to support these farm families at the local level. It’s one way we can keep our small communities viable.”

Despite structural farming challenges and the ongoing pandemic, Bragger said he remains guardedly optimistic about farmers’ future. He has taken phone calls from farmers across the state wondering how they will pay bills, how they will hold onto their farms. But he has watched those same farmers donate milk and cheese to hunger relief efforts.

“We don’t know when this (pandemic) is going to end,” Bragger said. “There is a lot of uncertainty out there, a lot of people struggling. But in tough times people come together, and that’s what we farmers and our communities are doing.”