There was a time when, if you lived in the St. Croix Valley and you weren’t a lumberman or miller, you were probably a farmer. Sure, there were bankers, shopkeepers and pastors who lived here, too. They were here, of course, to serve the loggers, the millers, the farmers.
The logs ceased running downstream a century ago. And today, the farmland is turning over to housing developments, one family’s story at a time.
A column submission popped into my inbox last week from the Wisconsin Farmers Union. The author, Kara O’Connor, proposed an answer: Our current system is set up to fuel overproduction. This means for profits for the seed producers, agrochemical companies, and equipment manufactures. It means a lower price for the companies who process the farmer’s products and send them to grocery shelves. And in the middle, the farmer loses.
I’ll quote O’Connor here at length.
“For farmers, the economics of this overproduction are so bad that many have been forced out. In Wisconsin alone, we’ve lost nearly 500 dairy herds so far in 2018. That loss has rippled across the countryside, leaving some wondering why Congress couldn’t step in and manage overproduction, like Canada has done with dairy, and like the U.S. government has the ability to do for cranberries.
“But, because all of the ancillary cogs benefit from overproduction, the agribusiness sector marshals its lobbying power in Washington to oppose supply management. Case in point: powerful dairy processing interests successfully lobbied to get overproduction management taken out of the last Farm Bill.
“But the agribusiness industry still needs farmers to keep the ship afloat. If agribusiness does not step in to help farmers get a fair price, what do they do instead? They go to Congress to make sure that average farmers get just enough government subsidies to stay in the game one more year, keeping the central cog turning so they get their piece of the pie. It's a clever strategy on the part of the agribusiness sector - reap the upside benefits of a ‘free market,’ but get the U.S. taxpayer to cover the losses. We’re seeing this yet again, as the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, in partnership with the American Farm Bureau, recently unveiled a new insurance plan for dairy farmers facing unexpected declines in quarterly milk sales. Akin to the federal crop insurance program, the protection would offer coverage levels from 70 to 95 percent of revenue.
“Although some very large players collect enormous sums in subsidies and crop insurance, for average farmers subsidies are just a mechanism for keeping one's head above water and staying one step ahead of ever-rising input prices and stagnant commodity prices.
“The farmers I know would rather receive fair prices for their products at the farm gate, rather than having to live with the stress of volatile markets and the unknowns of whether emergency relief and insurance will kick in.”
Suzanne again, wanting to hear from you. The work of farmers is vital, but solutions seem elusive. Is O’Connor onto something with her diagnosis?
Let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org.