Gary and Patty Edelburg operate a 120-cow dairy herd near Amherst and have struggled in recent years to make ends meet amid continued low and volatile milk prices. The Edelbergs support a proposal announced last week by Gov. Tony Evers to include $43 million in spending on multiple agriculture initiatives in the 2021-23 state budget that will be finalized later this year. (Photo courtesy of Patty Edelburg)
Gary and Patty Edelburg operate a 120-cow dairy herd near Amherst and have struggled in recent years to make ends meet amid continued low and volatile milk prices. The Edelbergs support a proposal announced last week by Gov. Tony Evers to include $43 million in spending on multiple agriculture initiatives in the 2021-23 state budget that will be finalized later this year. (Photo courtesy of Patty Edelburg)

Federal CARES money kept farms alive, but state investment would help a sector that does $100 billion in annual business.

Like other dairy farmers across Wisconsin, Patty Edelburg and her husband Gary have struggled to make a go financially of their 120-cow operation near Amherst in recent years as the long-term low prices they received for the milk their cows produced failed to keep pace with the costs of doing business.

Those challenges were multiplied in March, when the coronavirus surfaced in Wisconsin, disrupting food supply chains and markets for farmers to sell their goods to. Restaurants, schools and other sales outlets shut down, as did dairies and meat processing plants. 

Farmers suddenly had few places to sell their products. Some were forced to dump their milk, and animals that were to go into the food supply were instead killed and disposed of without available meat processors. 

“It was already hard for farmers,” Edelburg said, “and then when the pandemic hit, it got even worse.”

Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funding helped the Edelburgs and thousands of other Wisconsin farmers pay bills and keep their farms up and running last year. But more must be done to keep the state’s agriculture sector viable, Wisconsin’s agriculture leaders said. 

Help could be on the way later this year. To help farmers and boost the state’s economy, last week Gov. Tony Evers announced he plans to include $43 million for multiple ag-related programs in the 2021-23 state budget he will unveil Tuesday. 

Those dollars would help expand new markets for farmers, increase the number of local meat processors, grow farmer-led conservation efforts and ag-related research, and boost mental health services and other supports for agriculture workers. Investments to improve the state’s agriculture economy would help not only farmers but the entire state economy, the governor said. 

“The initiatives in the governor’s budget to help farmers would also help boost the state’s economy,” said Edelburg, who is vice president of the National Farmers Union. “When you help rural Wisconsin, you help Wisconsin as a whole.”

Darin Von Ruden, president of the Chippewa Falls-based Wisconsin Farmers Union, agreed. Federal farm policy for decades has benefitted large producers at the expense of smaller family farms, he said. But Evers’ proposal would help multiple aspects of the state’s rural economies. 

“Our rural communities have been in decline for a long time now,” he said, “and this proposal shows us that the voices of people living in those areas are being heard.” 

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Krentz also praised Evers’ proposal, saying a stronger agriculture economy has a direct financial benefit to the state’s financial picture. Agriculture generates nearly $105 billion annually toward the state’s economy, he noted.

“We are pleased to see Gov. Evers include many agricultural priorities in his budget proposal,” Krentz said in a news release

Whether those provisions are part of the state budget that will be finalized by the state Legislature in upcoming months remains uncertain. Farmers and Wisconsin’s agriculture organizations said Evers’ proposal would provide a much-needed boost to an agriculture sector that has struggled for decades.

Wisconsin has lost a record number of farmers to bankruptcy in recent years. That would have been higher last year without federal assistance that allowed many farmers to stay in business. Still, recently released figures reported by Wisconsin Public Radio show western Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies in 2020, with 39 such filings. 

Farmers in other parts of Wisconsin face difficulties as well. The state’s Eastern District ranked fourth among federal court districts nationwide, with 30 farm bankruptcies filed last year, trailing only Kansas and Nebraska.

“It’s sad news. It’s one of those statistics you don’t ever want to be number one at,” Von Ruden said. 

Von Ruden knows the challenges farmers face all too well. He operates a 50-cow organic dairy farm between Cashton and Westby and has watched for years as the number of farms around him has dwindled. Fewer farmers means the small communities that make up most of Wisconsin struggle, he said, as rural areas lose population and jobs. 

Evers’ proposal would help the start to reverse that trend, Von Ruden said. State investment in agriculture wouldn’t just benefit farmers but would have a positive spinoff effect on other aspects of rural communities, he said. 

Danielle Endvick said she backs Evers’ proposal because rather than focus only on big agricultural interests like federal ag policy so often does, the state initiatives would provide opportunities for producers of all sizes to better link with buyers and processors and more effectively be able to market their products. Such efforts are especially vital, she said, as farmers face uncertain milk futures and grain prices and experience continued difficulties finding available meat processors. 

“This focus on rural areas would benefit the state in a lot of ways,” said Endvick, the Wisconsin Farmers Union communications director who raises beef cattle on a rural Holcombe farm with her husband Jesse. “Most of our state is made up of rural communities, so making them stronger helps all of us.”

Jesse Endvick (pictured) and his wife Danielle operate a beef cattle farm near Holcombe. They support added state spending on the state’s agriculture sector because it would benefit not only farmers but multiple aspects of rural communities. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Endvick)

Wisconsin’s Legislature is divided along political lines on many issues, but Endvick and Edelburg said they’re optimistic lawmakers will back Evers’ proposal. While Edelburg is grateful for the federal financial assistance she and her husband received last year that allowed them to continue to operate their farm, she and other farmers favor a model where such handouts aren’t needed. 

“Farmers don’t want government handouts,” she said. “We want to make our money through sales, and this proposal by the governor creates a lot of new opportunities to do just that.”