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Change for the better

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors passed a June Dairy Month proclamation last month. It did so without discussion or debate.

That’s a shame, because, with agriculture in crisis, there is a lot to talk about.

The proclamation rattles off the standard statistics. Marathon County ranks third in Wisconsin for milk production. The county’s dairy industry contributes $2.03 billion to the local economy.

What the proclamation does not say, however, is what everyone here knows: that dairy producers have gone years without profitable prices, many small and medium producers have sold their herds and the countryside is littered with abandoned, dilapidated wooden barns and empty concrete silos. The proclamation trumpets the dairy industry’s economic contribution, but fails to point out that most of this impact is from cheese cutting and packaging, and that only a minor percentage of those dairy dollars find their way to farmers or, to an even lesser degree, farm laborers.

The county’s proclamation heralds a “strong future” for the local dairy industry, but, as this week’s investigative news story reports, the future of Marathon County agriculture is up for grabs. Dairy farm numbers continue to dwindle. Cropland is diverted from forages for dairy cows to corn and soybeans, which, this far north, is not much more than a break even enterprise. The family farm model where children provided free labor is a broken system. The rural village model where farmers bought feed, seed, hardware and a bump of whiskey at the local tavern is also broken.

We don’t begrudge the county board its vote on June Dairy Month. There isn’t anything happier than eating a dollop of vanilla ice cream on pancakes at a local June is Dairy Month breakfast. Supervisors are not wrong to try and celebrate America’s Dairyland.

At the same time, we should not let official proclamations keep us from looking squarely at this county’s agricultural situation, pondering its future and actively question whether our support for farmers is based on good strategy, not just nostalgia and empty mythologies.

We have a basic question to answer. Do the myriad of local, state and federal farm programs help local agriculture or, in frustrating the free market, keep new entrants out of farming and stagnate investment? The list of farm supports is long. Between 1995 and 2019, Marathon County received over $238 million in federal commodity, conservation, disaster and crop insurance subsidies. On a state level, farmers are exempted from income tax and paying sales tax on a long-list of items. Use value assessment on cropland reduces farm property taxes significantly. Locally, county staff approve conservation and farmland preservation payments.

We suspect all of this well-intentioned help shackles local agriculture. Without it, the price of land would fall and, then, young farmers could afford to buy acres and begin careers in agriculture. Farmers would not be able to get by with using old, rusty equipment to plant money-losing commodities. A free market would require new technology, innovation and creativity. It would demand profit.

A June is Dairy Month proclamation is, in itself, not awful, but not what county agriculture needs rights now. It needs forward-looking change. There is a desperate need for diversity in local agriculture.

The Marathon County Board has 11 months in which to take up its next June is Dairy Month resolution. When it does so, it shouldn’t pass it as routine business. Supervisors should discuss the problems facing local farmers. It should call out the dairy crisis for what it is. It should signal alarm about how many county acres are planted in corn and soybeans. It should call for state and federal agencies to roll-back farm programs that stymie investment and accelerate farm consolidation.

In short, the county board should stop trying to keep agriculture the same. It should seek change for the better.