Wisconsin farmers remain optimistic amidst uncertainty

A dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

For the first time in 43 years, a portion of Jim Holte’s 460-acre Dunn County farmland has been left unplanted.

The family farm has existed for three generations, producing crops from soil that usually weathers a wet year because of its light and sandy consistency. However, this winter and spring were plagued by cold temperatures and heavy snow and rain, which led to severe flooding in the southwestern part of Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River.

Those conditions have created a massive challenge for farmers like Holte. He also has served for almost seven years as the president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, a Madison-based organization that works to represent the business, economic, leadership and educational interests of Wisconsin farmers and its 46,000 member families.

“Farmers are optimists,” Holte said. “They will plant under most circumstance that they think will grow a crop, but Mother Nature sometimes supersedes that.”

According to a July 8 Wisconsin Crop Progress & Condition Report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 94% of the state’s corn acres had reportedly emerged, which is 22 days behind last year’s average. Additionally, 96 percent of soybeans had been planted, which is 20 days behind last year and 22 days behind the five-year average.

Holte said farmers are accustomed to adapting to weather-related challenges, but due to the extent of this season’s delays, planting crops late would risk a run-in with the first frost of fall.

So, like many of the state’s farmers this year, Holte qualified for a Prevented Planting Payment, which is coverage for insured crops unable to be planted due to extreme weather. It was the first time in 43 years he had ever collected such a payment.

“It’s a last resort for farmers,” he said.

Farmers will more likely adjust their crops to accommodate a shortened growing season, but that’s been particularly challenging this year, said Brad Pfaff, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“If a farmer planned to grow corn or grain, it needs 100 to 110 days of maturity to grow and we don’t have that kind of time, a farmer will readjust and plant a different crop like soybeans, which takes less time to mature, but yet the price is so low for that,” Pfaff said. “That is the negative effect of what is happening in regard to international trade policy.”

Ongoing trade disputes with China over the past year have led to increased tariffs on a number of U.S. goods, including some of Wisconsin’s major agricultural exports, like soybeans, ginseng, pork and dairy products.

China is one of the state’s top agricultural export markets, along with Canada and Mexico, Pfaff said.

Wisconsin exported more than $800 million in agricultural and food products to 147 countries in the first quarter of 2019, which is a 4.8% decrease from the same period last year, according to a recent report from the International Agribusiness Center.

As trade uncertainty drives down the overall market price, farmers receive less for their commodity and in turn, contribute less to the state’s economy. It’s a ripple effect that is starting to impact all areas of the state, including southeastern Wisconsin, Pfaff said.

The agriculture industry makes up a major portion of Wisconsin’s economy, contributing $88.3 billion per year, according to DATCP.

“We need to make sure we have open markets,” Pfaff said. “That’s been one of the largest challenges our family farmers have faced in the first six months of this year – the uncertainty they have with the markets that they have worked hard to develop over the past 40 years.”

Pfaff said continued negotiations are necessary to reach fair international trade agreements and to develop trade policies that benefit all parties involved.

In the meantime, farmers, industry officials and Gov. Tony Evers’ administration are working to find new markets for products such as cranberries and dairy. Both industry sectors have struggled in recent years to find enough demand, but Pfaff said there are opportunities to sell those products in different local and international markets.

As the top cranberry producer in the U.S., Wisconsin produces 62% of the nation’s crop, according to DATCP. But last year, a portion of the state’s cranberry crop had to be destroyed due to oversupply.

Dairy farmers have suffered at the hands of changes in consumer tastes, which has caused a decrease in milk prices over the past few years.

In April, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. awarded a $750,000 grant to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research to launch the Beverage Innovation Center. It provides resources such as equipment and technical assistance to dairy producers and small businesses to test and develop new liquid beverage products.

“Agriculture, like every other business, is always doing consumer surveys and consumer research. They’re always seeking to know what the consumer desires and at the end of the day, as we all know, the consumer is right because whatever the consumer decides to spend their money on is the decision that’s been made by the marketplace,” Pfaff said.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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