By Randy Wokatsch
On Dec. 20, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill. Legislators apparently expected farmers to be happy. This Marathon County, Wis., dairy farmer is not impressed.
I have had people who don’t farm tell me how the dairy provisions in President Trump’s new Canadian trade deal must really be helping us. They are not and are too insignificant to matter. I’ve heard our future depends on exports and that Trump’s tariff wars are to blame for our prices. But we’ve had record exports in 2018, around 16%. Exports have not raised our prices. Our base price as of our Dec. 26 milk check was $14.10 per cwt. Class III prices for 2018 will average around $14.70. Unacceptable!
So what do I think is the problem and the solution to the problem? Here are some of my thoughts:
• The problem is oversupply, caused mostly by large expansions and increased production per cow. Riverview LLP of Morris, Minn., owns 92,000 cows. It has nine dairies, is expanding and produces more milk than all the farms in Illinois or Virginia.
• It is time for all family farms to see the threat to our existence. Five hundred-cow or even 5,000-cow dairies are not the enemies of my 55-cow operation, although when they expand, it’s not helping either. None of us are profitable and we all face elimination by the mega-dairies.
• I see some form of supply management as the only hope for family farms. We’re heading into our fifth year of breakeven or lower milk prices. Wisconsin Farm Bureau has changed its policy to “consider supply management.” Farmers Union and other organizations are lined up to support or consider it as well.
• Government action is needed to “set the table” for supply management, but once in place, farmers and processors are in the driver’s seat. Right now, we have no control of prices.
• For those who say they don’t want government intervention: Some studies estimate dairy subsidies in the U.S. at $20 billion per year. One could argue there is more government intervention in the dairy industry here than in Canada. Furthermore, does anyone think the Federal Order is really supply and demand?
• I think most dairy expansions occur for two reasons: 1) to try to spread debt/stay in business. 2) Ego. Proper supply management would mean profits without the need for continual expansion.
• There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The sugarbeet and cranberry industries have working models of supply management. Nor do we need to copy Canada. The U.S. dairy industry is unique to our country, and our supply management program should be as well. After looking around, we should incorporate what has worked and ignore what hasn’t.
I started this letter mentioning the farm bill. As one farmer said, “Farmers don’t want subsidies; all we ever asked for is fair prices.” Does the farm bill contain any provision to accomplish this? It’s a dizzying array of programs using nearly every letter of the alphabet designed to keep our eyeballs above water — but not a bit more. We deserve better. My feed consultant recently said, “I haven’t had as many tears in my eyes the last 30 years as in the last two when leaving farms.” Without change soon, my barn will be without cows sometime in 2019 for the first time in 118 years.
In light of hearing no other alternatives to the unacceptable status quo, let’s give supply management a chance. Make your voices heard!
Wokatsch farms near Marathon City, Wis.