3 things Wisconsin farmers are concerned about going into 2024

This Sept. 27, 2016 photo shows silos on farmland in Wisconsin in the Kettle Moraine region. The Kettle Moraine is a geological formation created thousands of years ago by the movement of glaciers. Today visitors can follow the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive through rural farming areas and rustic woodlands, and hike a variety of trails to experience landscapes that range from prairie to wetlands to forests. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

By Isabel Soisson

December 20, 2023

Farming has been, and continues to be, a backbone of American economic stability.

In Wisconsin, the agriculture industry contributes $104.8 billion annually to the state’s economy, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. The state’s industry also accounts for 435,700 jobs or 11.8% of the stat​e’s employment annually. And in 2022 alone, Wisconsin exported $4.2 billion of agricultural and food products to 142 countries.

But as we head into 2024, Wisconsin farmers are faced with a host of pressing issues. Hans Breitenmoser, a Lincoln County dairy farmer, recently spoke with UpNorthNews Radio’s Pat Kreitlow about what he deems to be the most important issues in his industry.

Here are three things he and other Wisconsin farmers are concerned about going into 2024.

Consolidation and Monopoly Power

Breitenmoser says a major concern of Wisconsin’s farmers is farmland consolidation–or when large farms acquire the land that formerly belonged to small ones.

Government policies have consistently favored larger farms, and over time, this has led to a shrinking total number of farm operations across the country, and in Wisconsin. Over the past four decades, overall US farmland acreage declined 13%, according to a 2021 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s nearly 700,000 farms that have ceased operating.

As the study sums it up: “large crop farms are getting larger, small crop farms are getting smaller, and midsize crop farms are disappearing.”

Consolidation means that fewer people can be farmers. As the study notes, it makes farming more of an “exclusive club” than an integral part of a state’s economy. It also leads to the further exclusion of groups that already struggle to be represented in the agricultural industry, such as Black farmers.

As Breitenmoser notes, consolidation isn’t good for consumers or producers. When a small number of large companies dominate the livestock market, farmers are paid less for their hard work, and consumers are saddled with higher prices at the grocery store.

“We’re not dealing with just symptoms, we’re understanding the reasons why we do have the prices we do,” he said.

The study also notes that when power is concentrated in the hands of a small segment of farmers, rural communities suffer: jobs disappear, population shrinks, and physical and social infrastructure weakens.

Immigration Reform

According to the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, an estimated 73% of agriculture workers today were born outside of the US. In Wisconsin, a recent study put the number of undocumented Hispanic workers on the state’s medium-to-large farms at about 6,200. It’s a conservative estimate, as the figure excludes migrants on smaller farms, such as those with less than 500 cows.

Despite the fact that migrants make up such a significant portion of the workers on farms across the nation, Congress has struggled to reach a deal on immigration reform that would make it easier for Wisconsin farms to hire and retain immigrant workers.

Another issue that’s plaguing the Wisconsin farm industry is the fact that lawmakers in many states with Republicans in charge of the legislature or governor’s mansion—including Wisconsin—have yet to give undocumented immigrants driving privileges, making it harder for them to work.

Immigration reform is “overdue for Wisconsin dairy farm operations and farms all over the country,” Breitenmoser said during his interview.

“We just don’t have an immigration policy that matches the realities that we’re dealing with in the real world,” he added. “We’ve got work to do, there’s plenty of it, and we need an immigration policy that recognizes that and tries to keep the ball rolling rather than having all these silly roadblocks to disincentivize people from working.”

Farm Bill

Breitenmoser and policy experts alike say that in order to address many of the challenges farmers are facing in the 21st century, coordinated national policy is needed.

After months of negotiations, Congress voted to extend the 2018 Farm Bill through Sept. 2024, and shortly after, President Biden signed the bill into law. While doing so avoided a government shutdown and provided some semblance of certainty to US farmers, farm and consumer advocates say the decision to punt to next year is a missed opportunity to address an out-of-balance market that drives farm prices down and consumer prices up while raising profits for corporations in the middle.

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden told UpNorthNews Radio last month that more needs to be done to reduce the farmers’ reliance on subsidies because it insulates consumers from seeing how much of their food dollar goes to non-farm activities like processing, transportation, storage, marketing, and market speculation.

“Looking at the subsidies programs, we’re continuing to take more and more dollars that are direct payments from the federal government versus getting those dollars from the consumer,” Von Ruden said. “We’d like to see something where the farmer and consumer have a little more direct contact. There’s more dollars that are going to the middleman. Meanwhile the farmers are getting less and the consumer continues to pay more.”

In a statement issued shortly after Congress voted to extend the 2018 Farm Bill, Von Ruden said that while the Wisconsin Farmers Union “appreciates the strong bipartisan support” it’s “now crucial for Congress to leverage this momentum and enact a new, five-year farm bill.”

“Our ongoing efforts are focused on modernizing the farm bill to acknowledge the challenges our farmers face,” he said. “This includes addressing issues such as ongoing concentration in the ag sector, dairy oversupply, the continued loss of small and mid-sized farms, and the urgent concerns of climate change and soil health.”

Author

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.

CATEGORIES: POLITICS | RURAL

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