By Julian Emerson Communications Specialist, Wisconsin Farmers Union
A September 18th Makers Market at Inga Witscher's Osseo, WI dairy farm will spotlight farmers' creative approaches to continuing a rural way of life.
OSSEO – After a decade of dairy farming, Inga Witscher sold most of her 40-cow herd in 2016 after she – like so many Wisconsin dairy farmers – couldn’t make enough money to live on by selling milk.
“I kept thinking ‘If only I had more acres. If only I had more cows,’ ” Witscher recalls. “I was working harder and harder, but I was losing money every year, and the stress was wearing me down.”
Six years later, Witscher is back milking cows again at her St. Isidore's Mead farm in Trempealeau County south of Osseo, only this time she is actually turning a profit. Perhaps more importantly, she says she is enjoying her life.
To do that, Witscher has turned the “go big or go home” mantra – an idea dairy farmers have been told for decades is necessary to remain in business – on its head. Instead of growing the size of her herd and buying more acres to farm, Witscher downsized to just eight cows that she rotationally grazes on different grasses on her farm of only 28 acres.
Rather than selling the milk her cows produce for people to drink, Witscher turns that milk into high-end cheese. She chose the reddish brown bovine breed because Jersey’s milk has a high butterfat content, better for producing “the best cheese we can make,” Witscher says on the morning of Sept. 7 as she dumps a pail full into a cooling tank after finishing milking one of her cows.
“What I was doing before wasn’t working, no matter how hard I tried,” Witscher says. “So we were like ‘How about we scale in the completely opposite direction and see what happens.”
Witscher – the host of the Around the Farm Table show on PBS Wisconsin – is part of a trend of farmers taking creative approaches to finding ways to make a living in the way of life they love, agriculture experts say. Numerous factors have forced farmers to look at greater efficiencies made possible by increasing the size of their operations. But doing so has often glutted markets with products, driving down prices they receive for their goods and pushing them to get even bigger to make a liveable income.
Even as the size of farms has increased significantly in recent decades, farmers have continued to struggle financially. Unstable price structures for milk, grain and other products amid rising input costs has squeezed many farmers out of business. Wisconsin farmers have been especially hit hard, as evidenced by the fact that the state known as “America’s Dairyland” has led the nation in the number of dairy farmers declaring bankruptcy in each of the past three years. Many farms, even large ones, remain in business only with the help of subsidy payments.
Wisconsin has lost about three farms a day during the past decade, and markets are becoming wildly unpredictable, forcing farmers to be more creative to survive, says Ken Meter, a longtime food systems analyst and president of the Crossroads Center in Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that helps communities create a more sustainable future.
“We are absolutely seeing more of this across the country,” Meter says. “People are having to be creative because (farming) conditions are so difficult.”
While large and small farmers alike are scrambling to find new ways to be resilient, small- and medium-size farms tend to be more agile because they can make changes easier and better adapt to changing markets. To find greater efficiencies, some Wisconsin farmers share resources and reduce up-front costs, Meter says. For instance, farmers may share their trucks to make deliveries, or they might purchase supplies jointly.
Hundreds of Wisconsin farmers have formed close relationships with households, with 1,294 farms across the state now selling a combined $46 million of food directly to customers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Randy Romanski, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary, says more creative approaches to farming, including some operating small farms instead of larger ones, have become more common in Wisconsin in recent years. As farmers struggle to stay in business amid economic pressures, more of them are seeking new markets and selling directly to consumers and restaurants, he says.
“More farmers are seeking partnerships and their own markets as new ways for them to earn income,” Romanski says, noting an increased demand from people wanting to buy their food locally is prompting additional sales opportunities.
While the coronavirus pandemic caused significant challenges for farmers, it also has provided opportunities for some, Meter says. The pandemic prompted more people to worry about where their food comes from, he says, and to not take for granted that grocery store shelves will always be fully stocked. Higher grocery prices present farmers an opportunity to sell their products directly to consumers as those prices may now be cheaper than what consumers can find on grocery store shelves.
“The pandemic was a real watershed,” Meter says. “People now realize that they had better start thinking more carefully about where their food is going to come from, and that represents an opportunity for farmers looking at new approaches.”
Finding New Markets
While the coronavirus pandemic caused significant challenges for farmers, it also has provided opportunities for some, Meter says. The pandemic prompted more people to worry about where their food comes from, he says, and to not take for granted that grocery store shelves will always be fully stocked by distant suppliers. Higher grocery prices present farmers an opportunity to sell their products directly to consumers as those prices may now be cheaper than what consumers can find on grocery store shelves.
“The pandemic was a real watershed,” Meter says. “People now realize that they had better start thinking more carefully about where their food is going to come from.”
Key to farmers like Witscher succeeding financially is creating new markets for their products and building consumer loyalty, Meter says. He tells the story of one Indiana farm couple who planned a new dairy a decade ago. During their farm planning process, they discovered they could make more money by milking 25 cows and bottling on their farm and selling directly rather than milking 150 cows and selling to a fickle commodity market.
“There are ways that smaller farmers can make it, if they can find a specialty market with supportive consumers,” Meter says.
Farmers taking unconventional approaches face significant hurdles, Meter says. Chief among them is finding customers committed to buying from local farmers, and sometimes being willing to pay more for goods than they would at large grocery chains. Growing food in more traditional, environmentally friendly ways on oftentimes smaller farms “has been laughed at for years,” he says, but such approaches have garnered more credibility recently.
“Finding enough consumers who are committed to buying from local farmers who they know is not easy,” Meter says. “Farmers who do are swimming upstream against a very powerful current … But more people are doing that successfully now.”
A group of farmers in Polk and Burnett counties in northwest Wisconsin is attempting to do so. Twenty-six farms, many of them smaller and organic operations, recently joined and formed the St. Croix Valley Food Alliance. Those farmers typically sell their products in the Twin Cities and at farmers markets, and now they hope to expand their sales to include more residents in the counties where they live.
“We want to find a way to get healthy food raised in a way that is friendly to the environment to more people,” says Kristy Allen, a food alliance member farmer who operates The Beez Kneez beekeeping business.
To do that, Allen and her food alliance colleagues are finding ways to market their products, “to create a brand,” she says. Witscher is doing the same. Buoyed in part by her TV show visibility, Witscher’s St. Isidore's Mead cheese is in demand more than she can keep up with. She sells it to a couple Eau Claire restaurants and at farmers markets, and she sees the possibilities to expand sales.
‘Continue This Way of Life’
But as she sits outside her small barn on a recent morning after milking her cows, Witscher describes how she plans to resist the urge to get much bigger. She recalls her past struggles, selling her cows, and how, after restarting her smaller herd in November 2018, she awoke in the middle of the night to see a fire burning down her barn and the creamery inside that had just been completed.
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened. The restaurants that bought Witscher’s cheese shut down, along with farmers markets where she sold her product. Her TV show schedule was canceled as well. At one point during the winter of 2020, Witscher and her husband, Chase Orth, heated their house using their fireplace after they ran out of propane and couldn’t afford to buy more.
Witscher still has bills to pay. In fact, she is still paying off the loan for the first creamery that burned in the barn fire as well as owing money for the current one. However, pay she receives for her PBS show supplements her farm income, she said. And the difference Witscher said the money she receives per hundredweight for her cheese ($400) versus what she made when she was last selling milk to drink ($32) is substantial.
“I’m a farmer, so I’m not making a lot of money,” Witscher laughs. “I still have loans to pay off. But by having a small farm, I am able to make a living.”
Witscher hopes to highlight her cheese and other producers at the Around The Farm Table Makers Market event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at her farm south of Osseo. In addition to cheese, the event will feature such farmer-produced products as pumpkin seed oil, etched pumpkins, fiber products, and more. For more details about the event, including the address, visit here.
Part of her motivation to host the makers market, Witscher says, is to offer people to appreciate the joy of visiting a farm. As she travels Wisconsin for her TV program, she says she is increasingly aware that many appreciate a rural environment but don’t have regular access to one.
“Sometimes I sit on the porch, watching the sun set, watching my cows graze in the pasture, and I realize how beautiful this place is, how at peace I feel,” Witscher says, gazing at the farm around her. “I realize just how lucky I am that I am finding a way to continue this way of life, and I want others to know that feeling too.”
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This article is part of an ongoing series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project.
Be sure to pop by the Wisconsin Farmers Union booth at the Makers Market. See some of the vendors and creations that will be featured on the Around the Farm Table page.