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Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, speaking at the World Dairy Expo, Madison’s Alliant Energy Center 2019, infamously said: “Now what we see, obviously, is economies of scale … — big get bigger and small go out.” He was heartlessly saying that small dairy farms might not survive. Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin correctly rang the alarm: “More than 2,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin have gone out of business since President Trump took office.”

However, the decline continues: “Wisconsin dairy farm losses recently hit a three-year high even as milk prices were strong and farmers generally fared well” (MJS). Another 417 dairy farms hit the dust, leaving just 6,116. Wisconsin dairy farmers are not rolling in cash. The National Farmer’s Union said: “Farmers and ranchers receive only 14.6 cents of every food dollar that consumers spend.”

“Rising costs have also played a role in farm closures. Even as farmers have gotten more for their milk and other products, they’ve been slammed with higher expenses for everything from seed and fertilizer to tractor parts and milk hauling” (MJS). And, a broken immigration center has worsened the availability of farm workers, despite efforts by the National Milk Producers Federation.

The agriculture sector, including dairy farms, is still a crown jewel for Wisconsin’s economy. But the future looks grim for small dairy farms. Milk production is increasing in Wisconsin, despite the decline of dairy farms, partly because of farming and technological advances. However, overproduction in the U.S. and other countries, changes in diet, competition from non-dairy products masquerading as milk and inflation and possible recession spell trouble. Moreover, climate change will only exacerbate these problems.

It’s not for lack of effort or programs that the decline of small dairy farms has not been stemmed. The Dairy Margin Coverage (DMC) Program has merit. It is “an important safety net program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that helps producers manage changes in milk and feed prices” (USDA). But DMC is clearly not enough. It’s time to think out of the box. Members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Farm Bureau are trying to reimagine a dairy supply management system – “Dairy Revitalization Plan.”

The intent is to mitigate the negative consequences of unlimited milk production and put supply and demand more in sync. The goal is to give dairy farmers a stable, decent living. If small dairy farms are gobbled up and replaced by large industrial farms, the very identity of Wisconsin will change. Industrial farms (concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs) will crush small dairy farms, lead to monopolies-higher prices, concentration of economic power and despoilment of the environment.

That is the bleak future that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) wants for Wisconsin. The WMC is suing and threatening small rural towns that want to limit pollution from large industrial farms that degrades the quality and safety of groundwater and streams. The WMC is a big bully that can’t resist throwing its weight around against the common good. Corporations over small dairy farms and the public interest.

— Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C., for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 – 2009.

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