Action Project

Asked and answered, ‘What is the future for Wisconsin’s agriculture?'

Image By: Katie Scheidt

The Daily Cardinal asked a student, farmers, an expert and the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture what they think is the future of Wisconsin’s agriculture.

Erica Thomas is a junior at UW-Madison majoring Animal Sciences with business emphasis. One day she hopes to take over her family’s livestock farm.


What is the future of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry?

I think the future of not only Wisconsin’s agriculture industry but the industry as a whole is moving in a direction to where people want to know where their food comes from. Relationships between producers and consumers are a great thing. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a dumb question. It is very important for producers and consumers to have an understanding of potential concerns and to learn what is of importance to each other. Asking questions and forming relationships is a great way to help support the agriculture industry and your farmers.

Currently, what is the biggest challenge to Wisconsin’s farmers?

One of the biggest challenges to Wisconsin’s farmers currently is trying to make an income that will allow them to provide for and support their family. With limited income, that means being creative with available resources and relying on not only family and friends to help with labor, but relying on neighbors as well. There is an endless amount of support within the agriculture community. Farmers not only take care of their land and animals, but they take care of one another. Last March there were wildfires that swept across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, causing farmers to lose everything: livestock, buildings, machinery, homes and loved ones. Farmers across the country lined up people to look after their farms while they transported hay, fencing materials and machinery to those who were left with a blank slate. These farms and farmers will never be the same, but they will continue to do what they love to provide for their family and for others. No matter how great the challenge, farmers will be there.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest change to Wisconsin’s agriculture industry in the next decade?

If you fast forward to the next decade, I think you will see a great shift in technology used in machinery and facilities to make day-to-day activities more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Wisconsin has seen a decline in the number of its family farms, particularly dairy farms. Do you think there will ever be a time when they disappear? Please explain why not, if yes or no, what repercussions do you think there will be?

I do not see a time where there will ever not be family farms. Growing up in a rural farming community is something I am truly grateful for. I believe the passion for being a caretaker of the land and livestock is something that subconsciously gets passed down from generation to generation. For me, showing pigs at the fair is what sparked my interest in agriculture. My first show pig’s name was Pearl. I was nine years old. Every day I would take Pearl on walks through the pasture for exercise, give him feed and water, clean out soiled bedding and provide fresh straw, and give him a bath with Suave aloe shampoo. I started to develop a rewarding feeling after I completed all of my chores for the day, and it left me wanting more. On the weekends, during winter and spring break and over the summer, I try to go home when I can to help on the farm alongside my grandparents and dad — fourth- and fifth-generation farmers on our farm. Working with your family and having the same passion for what you do is a pretty remarkable feeling. I have aspirations of being the sixth generation on my farm.

Rural farming communities are often placed opposite of urban communities creating a rural-urban divide. As the industry changes, do you think this relationship will change?

I believe the relationship between rural and urban areas has been changing. I believe a crucial group that is overlooked is the youth in the agricultural industry. Exhibitors showing animals at the fair, high school FFA chapters and students with rural, farming backgrounds furthering their education at college all serve as a bridge between rural and urban communities. Attending UW-Madison was eye-opening for me. My high school graduating class was 55 students, and the closest town to me had a population of 442. Needless to say, attending my Biology 151 lecture which was held in Bascom Hall Room 272 that seats 475 students was a little overwhelming freshman year. However, I began to discover opportunities on campus where my agricultural upbringing presented a unique perspective. I greatly value all of the connections I have made during my time at school with individuals of both agricultural and non-agricultural backgrounds. There is always an opportunity to learn from someone. We just need to take it.

Bruce Jones is an Agricultural Economics professor in UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science. He has served on the boards of Madison Farm Credit Services, Cooperative Services Incorporated and Ag Source Cooperative.

What is the future of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry?

The future of Wisconsin agriculture is promising. Agriculture is an important part of the state’s heritage, and it will very likely continue to be a major driver of the Wisconsin economy.

Currently, what is the biggest challenge to Wisconsin’s farmers?

The greatest challenge currently facing Wisconsin farmers is generating profits in the face of low prices for milk, corn and nearly every other commodity produced by farmers. Fortunately, the majority of the state’s farmers went into this down-cycle with some financial reserves that could be tapped into to cover cash operating deficits. But now these financial reserves are pretty much depleted, and some farm businesses are financially stressed to the point where they could very well go out of business.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest change to Wisconsin’s agriculture industry in the next decade?

The biggest change in Wisconsin’s agriculture [industry] in the next decade will likely be its structure. There will be two distinct groups of farms. One farm group will be comprised of a few large-scale farming operations that will be in the business of producing commodities like milk, corn and soybeans. The other farm group will be comprised of numerous small-scale operations that will produce specialty products, such as organics, for niche markets. These micro-scale operations will likely be financed in part by non-farm wages earned by the persons who own and operate the farms.

Wisconsin has seen a decline in the number of its family farms, particularly dairy farms. Do you think there will ever be a time when they disappear? Please explain why not, if yes or no, what repercussions do you think there will be?

It is true the number of farms in Wisconsin has been steadily declining over the last half century. This decline in the number of farms has not, however, been the result of large, investor-owned corporations getting into agriculture and displacing small-scale family farms. Rather, the decline in farms numbers has been the result of farm families electing to get out of farming and selling their cows, equipment and land to other farmers wanting to expand their businesses. This transfer of farm assets from one family farm to another is important because it means families and not corporations are continuing to control and operate most of the farms in the state.

Rural, farming communities are often placed opposite of urban communities creating a rural-urban divide. As the industry changes, do you think this relationship will change?

Farms will no doubt decrease in number in the future, and it is a good bet that the populations of rural communities will follow suit. This decline in the number of rural residents will likely have some political implications because the voting power as urban communities should rise as the population of rural communities falls. This could trigger some major shifts in environmental regulations, land use policies and other issues the where the preferences of rural residents differ from those of urban residents.

Deane and Nancy Thomas are Erica Thomas’s grandparents. They own and operate a livestock farm in Cobb, Wis., one day their granddaughter hopes to take it over.

What is the future of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry?

Wisconsin has great agriculture land, and it lends itself to many types of agriculture. There is some concern right now with pending tariffs being put on some agriculture products. This will definitely influence profitability of some farmers. Exports add value to the products farmers sell. For example, exports add close to $300 per head when cattle are sold. This will ultimately affect profitability and cut into operating expenses.

Currently, what is the biggest challenge to Wisconsin’s farmers?

Another challenge is keeping up with all rules and regulations to operate in a responsible manner to get high-quality products to consumers.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest change to Wisconsin’s agriculture industry in the next decade?

Thinking back on what has happened to Agriculture in the last 10 years, we feel certain that technology and automation will continue in all phases of agriculture: livestock, dairy and crop production. And, college education for our future farmers will be increasingly important.

Wisconsin has seen a decline in the number of its family farms, particularly dairy farms. Do you think there will ever be a time when they disappear? Please explain why not, if yes or no, what repercussions do you think there will be?

Generation farms will continue in Wisconsin: It all begins with dads and moms: If dads and moms encourage their children from a very early age to help with tasks appropriate for their age, if children are encouraged to join 4-H and FFA with parental support, if children can observe their parents, they will learn to respect animals and learn the proper care and handling of animals, as children grow as parents give them more responsibility and management decisions.

Generation transfer and communication at all stages is vitally important.

There are many young people interested in carrying on in agriculture production. This has been very evident at World Dairy Expo and in the Beef Tent at Wisconsin Farm Technology Days when students have stopped at the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s booth and have explained their intentions of working on their home farm and carrying on with the family enterprise. It is important for these young people to further their education beyond high school.

Rural, farming communities are often placed opposite of urban communities creating a rural-urban divide. As the industry changes, do you think this relationship will change?

Rural-urban relationships need to be cultivated. The spread of understanding with urban people as to where their food comes from is widening. Fewer and fewer people have any rural “roots.” Rural people need to make special efforts to “tell their story” to urban people wherever they might meet.

All parties, both rural and urban, need to be good listeners. Common sense and mutual respect for each other are most valuable tools for long lasting relationships.

Sheila Harsdof is Wisconsin’s Secretary of Agriculture. Previously, she served as a state senator and chair of the Senate Committee Universities and Technical Colleges before the governor appointed her to the new role last November


What is the future of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry?

I am optimistic about the future of Wisconsin agriculture. Our farmers and processors are providing food, fuel and fiber to a growing world population with greater efficiency and higher yields than we have ever seen before. One in nine people in Wisconsin work in a job related to agriculture. With more than 400 different great careers available in agriculture, ranging from farmer to mechanic, soil scientist to nutritionist, lender to educator, there are exciting opportunities for young people no matter what their interests are. Technology and innovation will continue to impact agriculture, allowing for enhanced opportunities to feed the world and conserve and protect our land and waters.

Currently, what is the biggest challenge to Wisconsin’s farmers?

Wisconsin farmers are experiencing several years of low commodity prices, creating tremendous challenges. At DATCP, we are working to encourage new product development and to grow markets, domestically and internationally, for Wisconsin’s agricultural products and commodities. Wisconsin farmers are exceptional at what they do, producing quality products more efficiently than ever before. By growing domestic demand and export sales, we can increase farmers’ profitability.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest change to Wisconsin’s agriculture industry in the next decade?

We need to understand the expectations of our customers, in our backyard and around the world, to determine how to grow and produce food they desire. At UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, which I recently toured, I saw firsthand how they are developing new products to meet consumer demand. Researchers are working to create dairy products that meet the needs of the customer, whether it be an athletic recovery drink, specialty cheese for the Asian market or snacks for families on the go.

Wisconsin has seen a decline in the number of its family farms, particularly dairy farms. Do you think there will ever be a time when they disappear? Please explain why not, if yes or no, what repercussions do you think there will be?

Just as in other industries, agriculture and our farms are always changing. It is important to note, however, that 96 percent of Wisconsin dairy farms are family-owned. These farms are of all sizes and include those owned by individuals, family partnerships and family corporations. Some farms have become larger to incorporate a number of family members from multiple generations. This allows family members to improve management of their operations through specialization, from calf care to animal nutrition. Farms, and the families that run them, will always be the foundation for Wisconsin’s agriculture industry.

Rural, farming communities are often placed opposite of urban communities creating a rural-urban divide. As the industry changes, do you think this relationship will change?

Agriculture connects us all. We need farmers to grow crops and livestock. We need processors to create the value-added goods we look for on store shelves. We need consumers to purchase nutritious and delicious Wisconsin products. As consumers become more health conscious, they not only want to know what is in their food but are becoming more interested in how their food is being produced. The agriculture industry needs to be involved in informing consumers as to why they do what they do. As Secretary, I look forward to helping to strengthen these relationships and encourage communication. 

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