By Kaitlyn Riley
What is the future for Wisconsin agriculture? I recently attended the Wisconsin Agricultural Outlook Forum at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where economists and experts shared their insight. Many are hopeful for better times to come, but there are several variables in the industry. Exports, technology, weather and labor are just a few of the complicated factors that impact our farmers and processors.
The theme of this year’s forum was dairy farm consolidation. I was nervous to dive into this topic because almost everyone I meet has an opinion of what a Wisconsin dairy farm should look like. If there is anything that I have learned from my time as Alice in Dairyland, it is that our success comes from farms of all types, sizes and production methods.
Family dairy farms
I was raised on one of the 96% of Wisconsin dairy farms that are family-owned. My parents continue milking a herd of Jersey cattle in Crawford County to this day. We sell our milk to a local co-op that developed in the late 1990s. As I grew up in the industry, I saw neighbors and friends innovate to meet the ever-changing needs of the dairy sector. Some restructured their farm management to become certified organic and receive a higher premium in that niche market. Others expanded their herd, which allowed the next generation to join the farm and made room for highly efficient technology. Personally, my family’s dairy has stayed about the same. We still milk about 70 cows on a 200-acre farm.
Our state’s diversity is what makes agriculture so special. Wisconsin leads the nation in the organic dairy sector and has more dairy goats and sheep than any other state. Our infrastructure in the industry is designed to capture the unique value each farm brings to the table. We need farms of all sizes because they all develop our quality brand. Efficiency allows us to produce at a high volume, while specialty products help us gain new markets. For example, according to Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, there has been a 45 million-pound increase in annual Wisconsin cheese sales since 2013, and 62% of that increase is because of specialty cheeses.
Wisconsin is proud to be home to about 8,000 dairy farms — more than any other state. While that number has decreased since I started my duties in June, the topic of dairy farm consolidation does not always shed a negative light on the industry. Another great challenge we face in agriculture is the aging population of our farmers. Collaboration can help the older generation of farmers do what they love with less labor while helping a younger generation step into agriculture without the capital costs of starting from scratch.
The industry has certainly changed since my local milk co-op developed in the late 1990s, and there are resources available to help farms with business and financial planning, transition and succession, production concerns, and counseling services. The Wisconsin Farm Center, part of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Division of Agricultural Development, has been partnering with Wisconsin farmers since 1984. Find information about the farm center at datcp.wi.gov.
I am proud to be a part of Wisconsin agriculture, and I am excited to see how we will work together to keep the industry moving forward.
Riley is the 71st Alice in Dairyland.