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Truths about the state of farming

By John Oncken

(Friday, April 18, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --For some reason, or maybe many reasons, Wisconsin's - and the nation's - dairy industry is in deep trouble.

Farmers always seem to be in trouble of some sort: weather (too dry or too wet), storms (wind or hail) and government (too much or too little).

City folks either love or dislike farmers. There's the old "Look at the cute little calf," or "It must be so nice to be your own boss and be able to take time off when you want to," or "You must not spend much money for food what with free milk and all." There are plenty of wrong perceptions often expressed by non-farmers.

There's the other side, too, with the "Oh, smell the horrible cow pooh," and "What's that tractor doing in the field at 9 at night, doesn't that farmer know I want to sleep?" or "I didn't move to the country to have that little farm next door become a big farm."

At the moment it's not those fallacies and misconceptions that are foremost on the minds of dairy farmers. Now it's all about money. Money to use for normal purchases, repairs, feed, seed, fertilizer and all the things that keep a farm running.

While you don't or won't see farmers sitting at busy highway intersections hoisting signs reading "Will work for food" or going on strike for a wage increase or better insurance, there are serious problems in the world of dairy agriculture.

It's been well publicized that dairy farmers are suffering from the low milk prices. You've probably read about it or have friends in farming who have mentioned it. Immediately your eyes have glazed over and your mind wandered to a more interesting subject.

Perhaps I can try to simplify things. Milk pricing is so complicated that 99.9 percent of dairy farmers don't have a clue as to what goes into the price they receive in their milk checks.

What dairy farmers do know - and what non-farmers might like to know - is that the basic milk price received by dairy farmers for their milk in February is 2 cents per hundred pounds above what they or their parents received in March 1978. In the 300 months that have passed over those 2 decades, only one other month (November 2000) had a lower basic milk price.

Big deal, some would say. If milking cows doesn't pay, why don't farmers just get out and get a good job?

Believe me, they have, and that's one reason why there are only 16,900 dairy farms in our state compared to 50,000 in 1978.

Yet, farmers continue to farm for many reasons beyond a big paycheck - family heritage, love of land and animals, meeting challenges head on and succeeding in spite of it all, just to name a few.

And interestingly, most farmers have a calling to provide food for the world. Furthermore, most farmers actually love to farm and will endure trials and tribulations of every sort to continue to do so.

I know that may be hard to believe in these days when buying a second SUV, building a bigger house, adding another TV or taking a vacation in Greece or some other far-off land seem to dominate the lives of so many.

So why don't farmers get together like teachers, government workers, teamsters, policemen so many others and form a union?

Good question, easy answer. Farmers still operate as individual families who invest their own money in their business. They are entrepreneurs at heart and always feel that hard work, good management and luck will result in success. In addition, they can't just turn off the milk faucet, not feed the livestock or not haul the manure or create a work slowdown or stoppage. Their heart and the financial repercussions don't allow it.

In fact, it's often joked among farmers that you'd be lucky to find two Norwegian brothers on separate farms agreeing on the weather at a given moment.

A common plea heard for ages has been "I'm from the government, let me help." It's true sometimes and in some small ways. Mostly, though, government help comes from people who couldn't run a business for a month if their life depended on it. What works on paper may not work in fact, especially if it involves investing a lot of money (the farmer's).

There are actually many government programs that do work: the Department of Commerce 20/20 dairy program; Ag Extension agents involved in production ag; college, VoTech and high school ag programs come to mind. They work for the farmers who take advantage of them, something not all farmers do.

But it's still the farmer who puts the bits and pieces together to make the ultimate professional and life decisions.

Then there is global communication, with ideas and advice as close as a computer. Grains from local farms moving to Japan, Russia and places in between bring money back to Wisconsin. Our soybeans and wheat exports are marvels of world trade. Great! It's welcome income.

There are exotic cheeses from France, England and Germany as close as your supermarket. Milk protein concentrate moves from New Zealand to U.S. cheese factories. Whoa! That means competition and lower prices for Wisconsin farmers.

A conundrum.

What about those dairy farmers with the low milk prices? The only solid hope is that there is a disaster somewhere, and not here. Maybe all the Arizona and Idaho dairies will go broke. Maybe every student in every school will find milk addictive and there will be a big milk shortage and the price will go up.

More likely, dairy farmers will use new ideas, merge into bigger units, manage better and somehow get along. Maybe the dairy will continue in the family. Maybe the cows will be ultimately sold at auction for top prices in spite of the economy, as in the case of Bernard and Genevieve Setz of Columbus at their recent auction.

The questions are many, answers few. Just ask a dairy farmer. Then ask a dairy processor, a farm equipment dealer or an ag banker. The issue is here and now.

Somewhere, someone with a vision will actually have an idea, and the ability to make it happen. And a lot of farmers will add, "the sooner the better."

Sorry for a perhaps dismal column. It's not about doom and gloom. Rather about facts, hope and the future.

John Oncken operates Oncken Communications, his Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 222-0624, fax 222-7774, or e-mail jfodairy@chorus.net

Editor's note: This piece appeared in the Capital Times yesterday and can be found at http://www.madison.com/captimes/business/stories/47118.php