Person of the Year: The Dairy Farmer
The worst drought in decades brings Dane County’s rich and varied agricultural community into sharp focus. Dairy farmers in particular have been hit hard, but surviving—even thriving—in hard times is all in a day’s work.
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In Dane County, dairy and agriculture provide 16,767 jobs—more than four percent of the total workforce. Of all the counties in the state, Dane County ranks number three in milk production—twenty-third of all counties in the nation. Dane County agriculture generates $3.45 billion, about seven percent of the county’s total business sales; dairy is the largest chunk of that, a $700 million industry with nearly four hundred dairy farms totaling more than 51,000 dairy cows, including an eighty-eight-head operation smack dab in the center of Madison at the university, a worldwide leader in agricultural research. As a land-grant institution, the University of Wisconsin is intricately woven into agriculture throughout the state. On the Madison campus, the dairy science department plays three roles—teaching, research and extension. Every professor conducts his or her own research, then passes it on through either teaching in the classroom or teaching off-campus, through UW Extension.
“Agriculture is an incredibly important part of our county, both economically and culturally,” says county executive Joe Parisi. “Dane County has this incredible mix of urban and rural and suburban and small town, and when you take it as a whole, we’re intertwined much more than many of us realize on a day-to-day basis. We are such a diverse community. But we’re one community.”
Statewide, dairy contributes $26.5 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy. But $26.5 billion is a really tough number to wrap your mind around. So consider this: Florida’s self-defining citrus? $9.3 billion. Idaho’s potatoes? $2.7 billion. California’s raisins? A measly $602 million.
Speaking of California, it’s true they’ve managed to make more milk than us in recent years, but theirs is a superficial victory. They’ve slapped up supersized milk parlors but have to purchase their own feed, which means things are hurting for them right now. In Wisconsin, most farmers grow their own and always have, and most farms are passed down from generation to generation. It’s a far more sustainable, diverse, flexible infrastructure, plenty strong enough to weather most crises. We’re the Dairy State not just in production output, but down deep in our DNA.
Plus we’re blowing them away in cheese.
Dairy is not only big, big business. It’s undeniably critical to the health of the whole state. Particularly because it’s made up of families, each pumping dollars into every local community, standing next to you in church, at the softball game, at the bank. And yet, “the average consumer only hears about Wisconsin’s dairy industry when it’s in bad shape,” says Jahnke. Or when farmers are doing something we think we don’t like, like growing too large, polluting our lakes or making us pay more than we want to for our milk.
Jahnke says we’re now five generations removed from agriculture. In 1950, farmers made up twelve percent of our total population; today, that number is down to two percent. It used to be every non-farmer had a friend or extended family member like my childhood friend Carrie. The whole family worked the farm; today Mom has a job outside the home to secure health insurance for the family, and kids are far too busy with homework, soccer, karate and piano lessons to do chores. Production costs have risen while the price farmers are paid for their milk has remained relatively low, forcing many a farmer to do a lot more work himself with a lot less—and he has. He’s hired help, invested in technology and streamlined operations. Or he’s gotten out, opting to do something else entirely, something a little less hard on the body, something that pays a little better and maybe comes with a benefit or two. But the average consumer isn’t aware of the challenges farmers face and still clings to the notion of an ideal that’s no longer viable.
“Many consumers very much want to believe in the fifty-cow dairy, the red barn, the white picket fence, Mom and Dad and the kids going out to the barn every day, twice a day, to milk those cows,” says Jahnke. “That still exists, but it is a rarity. I grew up on one of those farms. And I’ll tell you right now, for the farm I grew up on to survive today would be near impossible.”
See larger versions of the images used in this story here.