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Wisconsin’s Uncertain Dairy Farm Future Elicits Ideas for Solutions

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Ben Meyer/WXPR
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Hans Breitenmoser Jr.’s mother and father came to northern Wisconsin as Swiss immigrants, searching for the American Dream.

“My parents started here in 1968. I was born in 1969. They made their career of this farm,” Breitenmoser said Wednesday. “They started out with 20 cows.”

The Merrill-area farm grew, and so did the family’s passion for the land, the career, and each other.

“My father just passed away in February at age 82. He’s buried right over there,” Breitenmoser said, choking up as he pointed to the road. “He made a good career.”

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The view from Golden Dawn Farm.

Golden Dawn Farm now has 450 dairy cows, farming 1,300 acres. It’s doing well.

On Wednesday, the farm with decades of stories added one more, as Breitenmoser gave Gov. Tony Evers a tour.

He introduced his 12 employees. Workforce difficulties mean all but one them are from Mexico. He’s been hiring from Central America for at least 20 years.

“I don’t want to say it’s the only people that are available, but it’s pretty close to that,” Breitenmoser said.

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Golden Dawn Farm has about 450 cows.

Workforce challenges, coupled with wildly fluctuating milk prices and financial stresses on families, have led to decreasing numbers of dairy farms in Wisconsin.

In fact, dairy farms have completely disappeared from parts of the Dairy State. Oneida, Vilas, Forest, and Florence counties no longer have a single dairy farm left.

All told, Wisconsin has lost a third of its farms in just the last seven years.

For the last few years, the state has lost an average of a farm a day.

“We are losing farms,” said Mark Stephenson, the Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at UW-Madison. “They tend to be the smaller farms that do go out of business. But we’re still producing more milk than we ever have before.”

Farm consolidation and more productive cows help explain that trend.

Now, Evers wants to send relief to Wisconsin farmers, proposing $43 million for farms and farm families in his two-year budget.

He said future dairy strength depends on expanding markets.

“We will create more markets for our dairy products. There’s a significant investment directly from the Department of Agriculture at the state level to reach out globally to make sure we have touched every place on this globe for our dairy products,” Evers said.

Stephenson thinks that could be a good move. After all, Wisconsin still leads the nation in cheese production.

“We don’t sell very much cheese into export. Occasionally we do. That’s growing in popularity in a number of other countries, including Asia,” Stephenson said.

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Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Hans Breitenmoser's 15-year-old daughter, Abby, shows Gov. Tony Evers her cow, Matilda.

On his Merrill-area farm, Hans Breitenmoser sees a different path forward.

Opening more markets wouldn’t be a bad thing, he said.

“But I’ve been doing this for so many years [that I know] we will never market our way out of low prices because we’re so darn good at producing more milk.”

Instead, he said, farmers collectively need a better way of controlling supply. Otherwise, they’ll continue cranking out more milk as prices level off or drop.

Breitenmoser knows other farmers that could no longer sustain their farms.

He’s doing okay now, but has faced hard times himself over the years.

What will happen to his own farm years into the future?

Breitenmoser looked at his 15-year-old daughter and admited he isn’t sure.

“It’s really, really hard for me to predict what it’s going to look like, because there have been so many changes from when I was her age to now that happened on our farm and in the ag industry and specifically in the dairy industry.”

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