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America's Dairyland: Farmers try something new amid record bankruptcies, closures

News 8 Investigates - America's Dairyland: Farmers try something new amid bankruptcies, closures

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - Wisconsin is leading the nation in farm bankruptcies. Chapter 12 bankruptcies in Western Wisconsin have nearly tripled over the last 10 years.

Chapter 12 Bankruptcies filed over a 12-month period ending March 31, 2019

And it’s not just bankruptcies. Since 1997, Wisconsin has lost more than 60 percent of its dairy farms. 

This issue has been building for many years, but the biggest decrease in the number of small dairy farms happened between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recent data from the USDA. It seems like that trend continues in 2019. 

To stay in the agriculture field, some families are making the decision to sell off their dairy cows and try something new while they still can. 

In 1940, Walter Voelker founded North Wind Farms in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Passed on to Walter's son, Roger, it was then sold to Roger's son. 

“My dad was milking up to about 105 cows,” said Noah Voelker, the farm's third-generation owner. 

The cows have to be milked at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day. He cleans out the stalls as we stand in the barn talking about the family business. As the years go by, it's been harder and harder to keep going. 

“I was at a crossroads of either get bigger or get out, I guess,” Noah Voelker said. At one point he was considering a more automated process, but that would have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was left with one option.

 

Noah Voelker is far from the only one making this decision. Wisconsin lawmakers have introduced legislation in an attempt to help struggling farmers. 

"This has been, unfortunately, a process that has been in the works for decades now,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin, during a recent press conference. 

Despite a decline in the number of farms, milk production has increased by 15 percent over the past decade, according to the USDA. An over-production of milk led to a surplus, which created a decline in prices. 

“Prices continue to go down. And why so many farmers are getting squeezed out,” Kind said. 

That led to massive farms that were able to outproduce others in the market. 

“More consolidation, bigger farming operations -- our family farmers feeling the squeeze for all of that," Kind said. 

The legislator, who has represented Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District since 1997, most recently unveiled a plan to save Wisconsin's dairy industry. The plan calls for additional support for beginning farmers and ranchers, combating farming consolidation and ending President Donald Trump's trade war, which Kind has been critical of. 

“Let’s be clear: tariffs are taxes on American farmers, workers, and families,” he said in a May press release. “Unilateral tariffs will not bring China to the negotiating table. Instead of a tariff hike, we need to work together with our trade allies to hold China accountable for their trade practices, and level the playing field for Wisconsin businesses.”

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts the Census of Agriculture. The national survey measures a variety of farming-related statistics, such as the number of dairy farms in operation, size of dairy cow herds, etc. 

MILK COW OPERATIONS WITH INVENTORY FOR WISCONSIN

MILK COW OPERATIONS WITH INVENTORY FOR WISCONSIN PERCENT CHANGES
  2017 2012 2007 2002 1997 2012 to 2017 2007 to 2012 2002 to 2007 1997 to 2002
1 TO 9 HEAD 874 586 598 707 1,233 49.1 -2 -15.4 -42.7
10 TO 19 HEAD 495 712 736 868 1,613 see highlight see highlight see highlight see highlight
20 TO 49 HEAD 1,848 3,278 4,502 5,991 9,995 see highlight see highlight see highlight see highlight
10-49 head* 2343 3990 5238 6859 11608 -41.3 -23.8 -23.6 -40.9
50 TO 99 HEAD 2,908 4,181 5,567 6,727 8,771 -30 -24.9 -17.2 -23.3
100 TO 199 HEAD 1,529 1,584 1,685 1,754 1,918 -3.5 -6 -3.9 -8.5
200 TO 499 HEAD 930 815 798 650 481 14.1 2.1 22.8 35.1
500 OR MORE HEAD 453 387 272 189   17.1 42.2 43.9 NA

In 1997, the USDA found there were 24,065 dairy farms in Wisconsin. In 2017, there were 9,037 in operation.  

One of the largest losses was smaller dairy farm operations.  

"What it shows is the biggest decrease in the number of dairy farms from 2012 to 2017," said Greg Bussler, state statistician for the USDA. 

That's for farms with 10 to 49 cows. 

"That group decreased [by] 41 percent,” Bussler said. 

And it’s only gotten worse since then. As of June 1, 2019, Wisconsin had 7,722 dairy cow farms

“This is 1,315 herds less than what we had at the end of 2017 when the census was conducted,” Bussler said.

These are not just numbers. To Noah Voelker, they're neighbors. He walks around by the crop fields to point toward farms in the distance.

“They got out about 10 years ago now. The other one was probably 15 years ago to the right of that. He actually went bankrupt here about three years ago so that one’s sitting empty," he said.

Noah Voelker remembers growing up with lots of family farms in the area. Luckily, he hasn’t worried about bankruptcy, but he has been scraping by.

“It's not long-term, it’s not a viable plan to stay where I’m at,” he said. 

He couldn’t keep this business going. For months he has been considering winding down the dairy operations.

"When the bills are coming in and you try to figure out which ones are due, when to make sure you get them all paid and it usually leaves me with nothing at the end. But if I get them all paid then I'm happy I guess,” he said. 

After many sleepless nights, Noah Voelker made the decision to get out of dairy. 

"It was about a year ago this time that I kind of thought, 'Well, I'm gonna have to make some changes here,'" he said.

He's been selling off the cows since March. By fall, he’ll only have a few left.

Noah Voelker walks inside another building on the Rice Lake property. He pulls a bag of seed from the pile, and tears open the bag before emptying it into the grain drill.

"I love growing crops. I mean, I just love farming period," he said.  

While he’ll no longer be in dairy, he’ll still be in the field. 

“This was all soybeans here and we’re going to plant corn there this year, no-till,” he said. 

For now, this family farm is here to stay. A fresh start, a new day in America’s Dairyland. 

Noah and his family have traveled to communities like La Crosse to tell their story. His brother, Abe, has written extensively about the issues they faced. 

It’s unclear how many other dairy farmers like Noah Voelker are going into another agriculture sector in Wisconsin. The USDA said it doesn’t keep track of those numbers and News 8 couldn't find any other agency that is keeping track either. 

Despite the decline., the USDA found that Wisconsin still has the most dairy farms of any state, especially when it comes to smaller operations. In 2017, 85 percent of Wisconsin dairy farms had less than 200 cows.

News 8 has compiled data from the USDA about the changes in herd size and bankruptcies. To view the data, click this link

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