Protection and stewardship of the land is the Brattset Family Farm philosophy. Nestled in the rolling fields of Jefferson County in southeastern Wisconsin, the 290-acre organic grazing farm is composed of pastures, prairies and a herd of humanely raised beef cattle.
The picturesque operation, run between the Jurcek and Brattset families, takes dedication and sacrifice.
“We could probably make more money growing corn,” Kirsten Jurcek told The Daily Cardinal. “There’s just not that much money in agriculture. But it’s a peaceful lifestyle and a great way to raise a family.”
But the Brattset Family Farm’s success is not something every family farm experiences.
Jurcek’s farm resides in an agricultural community where there were once dozens of small dairy farms, but in their place remain a scant few holdouts and a new highway. Their town echoes a nationwide trend: that the viability of family farming is waning.
Less than a decade ago, America’s dairyland boasted over 10,000 farms, most of them small family operations. But in recent years, about 40% of dairy farms have gone out of business, according to PBS Wisconsin. For several years, Wisconsin has led the nation in farm bankruptcies.
Simultaneously, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms confining over 1,000 cattle, have risen to dominate the dairy market.
‘Get big or get out’
For decades, agribusiness has strongly favored larger firms. Today, four corporations control most of the farm-to-table supply chain, according to the Guardian.
Current data from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shows Wisconsin has 327 CAFOs, most of which are dairy farms in Manitowoc County and Brown County. CAFOs comprise the majority of the nation's milk supply, and their cheaper products cater to larger clients like Walmart.
Unlike the Brattset Family Farm and other small grazing pastures, cows in CAFOs are usually fed cheaper grain to promote faster growth at a detriment to the animal’s health. This harm is what necessitates the broad use of antibiotics in livestock feed today — a practice that threatens public health with antibiotic resistance.
“With there being so many large farms, there's such a surplus of milk that the milk price is just very eroded from what the cost of production is. Farmers have been forced to sell out their herds and quit dairy,” Jurcek said.
Larissa D., who asked to not be identified with her last name, is a UW-Madison agricultural and applied economics alumna who grew up working on her parents’ crop and dairy farm. She put this scale advantage into perspective.
“Say you’re spraying pesticide. Some high-end tractors have GPS now, so a wealthy farm can perfectly line up each row, while we just kind of have to eyeball it. Those small savings add up row after row,” she told the Cardinal.
“‘Get big or get out’ was the message to family farmers,” Larissa said.
Some family farms succeed despite CAFOs
Growing up on her parents’ farm working alongside her mother, Jurcek was familiar with the hard work and humble pay of small agriculture.
When she left for university, she had different plans. For over a decade, she was a hydrogeologist, working in environmental engineering and on cleanup projects. It wasn’t until she became a mom that Jurcek came back to agriculture.
Brattset Family Farm devised a rotational grazing system to keep the cattle grazing on fresh, tall grass all year, and they placed their ecologically important land into a conservation easement. As a byproduct, the land supports wildlife and pollinators, protects local waters, limits use of mechanical equipment and sequesters carbon. Today, the Jurcek and Brattset families have grown the farm together and specialize in 100% grass-fed and finished beef.
Though industrial farming offers a cheaper product, Jurcek says her farm has been profitable because it fills a niche.
“Most of our customers are repeat customers because they want a quality product, and they're willing to pay for it,” Jurcek said.
Her business and sustainability-oriented operations thus rely on consumer awareness.
“It's important for consumers to support people who are trying to [sustainably] farm, and not just once in a while,” Jurcek said. “A lot of people go to the farmer’s market just to have a good time, but what’s in their shopping cart when they leave Costco?”
While CAFOs outcompete small dairy farms, small beef farms are growing in Wisconsin, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The only competition Jurcek noted were mass retailers who sell beef labeled “grass-fed,” but aren’t telling the full truth. “Grass-fed” but not “100% grass-fed and finished” cows could be born on a pasture, then immediately taken to a CAFO and fed grain for the rest of their lives.
Larissa’s family farm has also continued business because of unique circumstances in northern Wisconsin.
“My area has not had as many CAFOs,” she said. “The past 10 years, we've had a lot of Amish and Mennonites move in, and they've almost been fighting developers by purchasing up land and holding it for generations.”
Most small farmers face hard choices between adapting and leaving
CAFOs are not the only challenge for small farmers, who are also coping with rising input costs and a decrease in young people willing to take over.
“Farmers are spending more time in the fields because they can’t afford to upgrade their aging equipment. When the next generation inherits those depreciating assets, they'll be in poor shape,” Larissa said. “The days get so long.”
What’s more, barriers to entry are too high to promote turnover. Today’s starting costs for a new farmer near Larissa could be $2 million, she said. Her family farm started with her Norwegian ancestors who obtained the land through the Homestead Act, and many existing farms today were similarly accrued and passed down.
Jurcek’s family farm grew with the support of other local farmers, but farming communities are changing as well. The loss of small dairy farms and subsequent depopulation has had far-reaching consequences for rural communities reliant on agriculture.
“We used to join forces more, whether it be sharing labor, sharing equipment, borrowing things when you had a breakdown. There was a lot more community,” she said. “We just have fewer people involved in agriculture, much less understanding of agriculture and much less appreciation for the food that we eat.”
Jurcek pins the blame on the market and public awareness.
“As long as the American consumer has wanted cheap, crappy foods, that's what the American farmer has produced.”
Advocacy as the future of small farming in Wisconsin
Small and family-run farms in Wisconsin see a path forward through community and cooperation beyond diversifying into beef and other products: grassroots advocacy.
Farming communities can market better to the general public, advocate for legislative action and defend environmental interests.
Brattset Family Farm is part of such a community. In Jefferson County, a group of 12 rotational grazing farms work together in marketing products, bartering supplies and “just helping each other out,” Jurcek said.
Jurcek is also the president of the Kenosha-Jefferson-Racine-Walworth chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which she says has been a key voice for small farmers in issues such as water quality, affordable healthcare and conservation efforts.
Jurcek said the union is also working to return more control to local governments. Laws such as Wisconsin’s livestock siting rule — which prohibits local governments from regulating livestock facility siting and expansion if the government previously zoned that area to allow agricultural uses — dramatically obstructs local officials’ right to resist corporate agribusiness interests and limit CAFOs.
The DNR has not advanced regulations to curb the public risks of unchecked CAFOs.
Toxic nitrates and bacteria from manure can contaminate the water table and aquifers, which supply drinking water for two-thirds of Wisconsin residents. The resulting effects can damage the ecosystem and tank property values for nearby residents.
Jurcek said previous administrations also legislated away grants meant to support new farmers and sustainable farming. She hopes advocacy and union support can bring such benefits back, but it is a slow process.
“If more people work collaboratively, we could change our rural communities,” Jurcek said. “We can make change over food if we start engaging young children about their food and where it comes from.”
Jurcek said her plans for the foreseeable future include working with new farmers and educating more people about regenerative farming.
“I think a shining star is that more young farmers are interested in rotational grazing, and our goal would be to give opportunities to those who want to steward the land the same way we do.”
Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.