Wisconsin’s dairy farms still troubled
July 28, 2021
At the beginning of 2021, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released a report that showed yet another decline in the number of licensed dairy farms in the U.S. Its Milk Production Report confirmed what Wisconsin dairy farmers already knew: The drop in the number of dairy farmers continues a long trend in the state and the country. Since 2003, U.S. dairy farm operations have been cut by more than half.
That was bad news for the Dairy State.
The Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin says the industry contributes more than $45 billion to the local economy. So farmers and consumers alike were heartbroken by the milk dumping that took place early in the pandemic. The supply chain had broken.
Amy Penterman, president of the Dairy Business Association, told Green Bay CBS affiliate WFRV that when schools and restaurants closed down, “the demand for milk, cheese, and other dairy products just disappeared overnight.” Farmers still produced plenty of milk, but there was nowhere for that milk to go.
“There were several farms that were asked on any given day to pull the plug on the bulk tank simply because the supply chains had broken down and they couldn’t handle all the volume of milk,” explained Mark Stephenson, director of the Center for Dairy Profitability.
In 2019, 818 Wisconsin dairy farms shut down. Although that number did slow in 2020, Wisconsin dairy farms continued to close during the pandemic. Wisconsin Agriculturist reported in September 2020 that an additional 266 dairy farms closed in the first nine months of 2020. Wisconsin Agriculturist reported in June 2021 that Wisconsin was still losing one dairy farm every day. Fran O’Leary wrote that between May 1, 2020 and May 1, 2021, Wisconsin lost 364 dairy farms.
Julie Maurer, a partner at Soaring Eagle Dairy, told WFRV that 2020 was a rollercoaster for dairy farmers.
“Looking back at 2020, we experienced some of our worst milk prices in the last decade as well as some of our strongest,” Maurer stated. She went on to say that right now what dairy farmers in Wisconsin long to see is milk price stability.
With schools and restaurants reopened, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for Wisconsin dairy farmers. But they are cautious about expecting a complete reversal of this trend.
“2021 is just a really big question mark because very clearly the pandemic isn’t over. We aren’t going back out to restaurants as we did before. Schools across the country are struggling to stay open and facing closures again,” said Stephenson to WFRV.
The closing of dairy farms has been a trend for decades, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) office in Madison. In 1960, the state was home to 100,000 dairy farms. In 1987, that number had dropped to 37,325. By 2017, the figure had dropped farther, to 9,304. In 2020, 7,168 dairy farms existed in the state, and by May 1, 2021, the state was home to only 6,804 dairy farms.
“We are not out of the woods yet, but we are staying optimistic and nobody wants to face what we faced last year ever again,” said Penterman.