Although Wisconsin is still known as “America’s Dairyland,” it was passed by California as the top dairy state in 1994. This was during the growth in factory farming, which has been detrimental to farmers and rural communities.
It was disturbing to hear Sonny Perdue, secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), assert that family farms are no longer viable when he visited Wisconsin last year. In fact, they are critical to the health and well-being of agricultural communities and to society at large — while industrial operations harm farmers, animals, and consumers.
For decades, the U.S. government has subsidized the overproduction of commodities like cows’ milk, undermining a functional marketplace. Consumers are drinking less dairy, while government programs are encouraging farmers to produce more, even with a glut of 1.4 billion pounds of cheese in storage.
Now, the coronavirus pandemic is making a bad situation worse. Struggling farmers need support — but not the same kind that has created so much hardship.
Our nation’s agricultural policies need an overhaul to help farmers adapt to changing consumer demands. The USDA should stop manipulating the marketplace and underwriting excessive dairy production, which has led to industry consolidation and a dependency on public funding. A study released in 2018 found that 73% of U.S. dairy proceeds, more than $20 billion in one year, came from government subsidies. Such agricultural policies are costly to taxpayers, and they have undermined the sustainability of family farms. It’s time for a fundamental shift in agricultural programs to encourage quality food over mass production.
Government programs should help distressed dairy farmers to diversify and innovate and to evolve with the marketplace. The growth of farmers markets, urban and community-oriented food and farming programs, should inform how we envision farm policy — even now, during the coronavirus pandemic where we’re seeing a resurgence of gardens reminiscent of the World War II-era Victory Gardens that provided 40% of our country’s produce. There are opportunities here, and the billions of dollars that are being squandered to prop up our dysfunctional system should be redirected to help dairies transition into more viable businesses.
A growing number of consumers are choosing non-dairy milks instead of cows’ milk, and cropland that’s been used to grow feed for Wisconsin’s dairies could be used instead to grow legumes, grains, pulses, and other higher-value crops for human consumption. Dairy industry infrastructure and equipment could be repurposed to process non-dairy foods such as plant-based milks and cheeses. There are also opportunities in producing fruits, vegetables, herbs, trees, hemp, and other crops.
Change can be unsettling, but it also presents new opportunities. Consumers are increasingly paying attention to where their food comes from, and they want to support farms and businesses they trust. The demand for higher-quality and organic food has grown substantially. Conscientious farmers can improve their bottom line and take home a larger percentage of each food dollar spent by producing quality food and connecting more with consumers.
Factory farming is a leading cause of our planet’s most significant ecological threats, including climate change and the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity. Meanwhile, the excessive consumption of animal foods in affluent countries like the U.S. contributes to heart disease and other preventable illnesses that cost billions of dollars every year. We can feed more people with fewer resources while also improving human health and lightening our ecological footprint by shifting away from animal farming toward plant-based agriculture.
Family-run dairy farms have experienced chronic distress, despite herculean efforts to keep them afloat. This is a reflection of our broken food system and changing consumer preferences and will continue in the absence of a new approach. The best way for these farmers to stay in business is to explore new opportunities that are better aligned with our evolving marketplace. And one of the best ways our government can help these struggling dairies is to support them in getting out of dairy farming.
Gene Baur of Arlington, Virginia, is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary (farmsanctuary.org), a national farm animal rescue and advocacy organization headquartered in Watkins Glen, New York. He wrote this for the News Tribune.