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A history of Marathon County agriculture

We seek a new future for Marathon County agriculture.

To find one, we need to understand the county’s agricultural past.

It all started with a sea of pine trees. In the late nineteenth century, lumberjacks felled the virgin forest opening up land for farming. German and Polish settlers, familiar with climate and soils near the North Sea, purchased the newly cleared land for $1.25 an acre. The Wisconsin Agriculturalist in 1903 praised Marathon County as a farming “utopia” with land getting quickly snapped up by newcomers.

The county’s first crops were hay, potatoes, peas, oats, rye, barley and wheat. Apples, beets and tobacco were tried but didn’t catch on. The county’s farmers experimented with goats and sheep, but raising dairy cows soon became the county’s specialty. Cheese factories appeared as early as 1891 and creameries by 1895. By 1924, the county produced 2.4 million pounds of cheese at 16 factories fanned out in a six mile radius from Athens.

Marathon County became one of the top dairy counties in the United States. By 1929, the county boasted 6,049 farms that milked 65,683 cows.

Over time, however, dairy farms, as a result of new technology and crops, such as high moisture corn that could be chopped and stored in silos, began to consolidate. In 1950, the county still had lots of dairy farms (5,524) with plenty of cows (88,829). By 1978, however, things had dramatically changed. The county had only 2,149 milk cow farms with 78,506 cows.

Consolidation has continued. Today, Marathon County has 433 Grade A and B licensed dairies that produce 1.37 billion pounds of milk annually from 64,000 cows.

In this collapse of dairy farm numbers, more land is being used for cash grain, notably corn and soybeans. The percentage of land used to grow hay in the years 1999 to 2018 declined from 53 to 41 percent, while land use for soybeans increased from three to 17 percent and corn from 25 to 33 percent.

At the same time, Marathon County farmers no longer own most of their farmland. A majority of cropland acres is now rented out by a landlord.

A recent survey of landowners in the Big Eau Pleine watershed found that 17 percent raised crops on their own land, while nearly 60 percent rented out their acres for somebody else to farm.

Despite these changes, Marathon County agriculture continues to be the county’s leading export, accounting for $41 billion of a total $325 billion of products shipped out of county.

Profits from that trade, however, have largely not gone to farm owners, whose income ($41,806 in 2017) lags the rest of the county, and farm laborers, who are among the county’s lowest paid among all workers ($24,000 a year in 2017).

Consolidation has not just affected milk producers in Marathon County, but also milk processors. In 1922, the county boasted 157 cheese factories. By 2019, however, the number of milk processing plants of all kinds decreased to seven. This number doesn’t include seven other businesses that shred, cut and package cheese and other dairy products.