By Mary Hookham
Imagine starting your work day before the sun rises and working until past sunset every day only to be told the profit from that work will not be enough to cover your expenses. Imagine constantly wondering if you’ll be able to put food on the table for your family every day or buy your children warm winter clothes for school. Imagine not being able to have confidence in your long-term business plan because you might have to give up on your dreams to take another job just to make ends meet.
This is reality every day for American farmers.
Gary Sipiorski, dairy development manager at Vita Plus, gave a presentation at the recent Yahara Pride Farms annual meeting explaining the current, very dire situation in the dairy community and highlighting the changes that have occurred within agriculture as a whole. His presentation emphasized the need for farmers to hold on to hope and think about what the ag community will look like in the near future.
“Why do we recognize that change occurs in many industries but fight it in other industries like agriculture?” he said. “Agriculture isn’t going to look the way it did in the 1920’s or the 1950’s. We know a lot more about doing it right, doing it better, doing it more responsibly. Change occurs.”
Farmers of all types want to learn more about the land because that’s their business, whether they’re crop farmers or livestock farmers. That’s something that’s important to them, he said.
Sipiorski spoke of the importance of water for recreation and scenic purposes and then turned his focus to water usage on farms. Dairy and crop farmers especially understand the importance of water.
“Water is what grows the crops, sustains the livestock and nourishes the family,” said Sipiorski.
He praised farmers and emphasized the importance of understanding the basics of agriculture. He wants consumers to know the production of their food goes beyond the doors of the local grocery store.
“All of our farmers have worked to grow healthier food,” he said. “We really need to appreciate agriculture.”
Sipiorski said in 1924 there were 177,406 dairy farms in Wisconsin. By 1950, that number had dwindled to 142,977 and by 1971, the number was 59,516. In 1985 there were only 42,076 farms and at the beginning of 2018, Wisconsin had 8,801 dairy farms.
“We expect to lose another 800 dairy farms before the end of 2018,” he said.
The number of lost dairy farms in Wisconsin over the years is a sign of the mountain of change, or the stages of grief, he said. Denial, anger, realization, depression and acceptance are part of the process of dealing with change.
“You know what the neat thing about acceptance is?” said Sipiorski. “We grow. We actually change. We understand it. We’ve gone through the cycle. Sometimes this takes a short time; sometimes it takes a long time. Some people see this as a mountain; other people see it as a speed bump.”
Farming today is considerably more environmentally friendly. Dairy farmers use 90 percent less land and 65 percent less water per cow annually as a result of better animal nutrition and the use of forage, improved genetics, better veterinary care and more efficient use of crop acreage.
“The changes in dairy farming over the last 100 years are because of technological improvements and precision farming,” said Sipiorski. “In 1950 one cow produced 700 gallons of milk per year, but now one cow produces 2,700 gallons per year. That’s a big change.”
His hope is for people to drive down the road and look at the livestock, scenery and natural resources, and then be able to make the connection between nature and the human need for it. Sipiorski hopes people understand how critical it is to preserve natural resources and our farms for the survival of future generations.
“Ladies and gentlemen, don’t you ever forget what agriculture has done for us,” he said. “All of the farmers who have produced the food and products that we consume have done so to help us be healthier. And all of agriculture wants to have a positive impact on the environment.”