Daniel Smith knows what it takes to run – and leave – a successful farm, and he knows the joy and pain of doing both. Now, he'll use his experience to help farmers finding their way in a daunting economy.
Smith has joined the Wisconsin Farm Center, housed in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, as an AmeriCorps member. AmeriCorps is a national service program, akin to the Peace Corps, but working in the United States rather than other nations. He is assigned to help out with the growing number of calls to the center, as more farmers – especially dairy farmers – find themselves facing financial difficulties today.
Farm Center director Paul Dietmann says, "Like our other staff members, Daniel comes armed with a lifetime of real-world agriculture experience. He's been there and done it, so when he talks to farmers, he knows what they're going through. He can offer his knowledge and skills, but he can also offer his understanding and empathy. That's just as important sometimes."
Smith grew up on a large dairy farm – "large for that time," he says – outside Freeport, Ill., operation. But it was still labor intensive, and with his sons busy with school and his wife teaching, Smith was a one-man show.
"From 1999 until 2007, I never missed a milking," he recalled. "When I realized that, I knew it was time."
So in 2007, they sold the cows, and in 2008, sold the farm and relocated to a farmette in Spring Green. He went to work for Midwestern BioAg in Blue Mounds as a nutrition and soil consultant. But when his clients learned about his background, their questions switched from farm practices to farm finances. He approached Dietmann about volunteering with the Farm Center to help with those situations. The Center had applied to AmeriCorps for funding to deal with the increased needs of farmers struggling with falling market prices, rising costs, and the recession. The grant came through and Smith was hired for the one-year position.
In his new role, he will do financial counseling and mediation, analyze balance sheets, look at financial statements and cash flow. "I can pretty well tell from those things whether a farm's going to make it," he says. "Our first goal is to keep people farming, but if that's not possible, to help them move to a new career."
Some might know Smith as a poet and essayist, writing about family farms and ties to the land. In "An Honest Living," an essay published a year ago in UW-Madison's magazine On Wisconsin, Smith reminisced about a lifetime on the farm. With sons grown and cows sold, Smith concluded, "…our herd is busy pumping out milk for their new family. I hope they produce well. I hope there are young farm boys around to feed the calves and fork in hay. I hope, for all of them, the milk keeps flowing."
The Wisconsin Farm Center operates a toll-free hotline for farmers: 1-800-942-2474.