It really has been a year since we packed a room at Barron Electric when Barron County Farm Bureau and Farmers Union held a farmer-led discussion on the dairy crisis. Wow!
One thing that bothers me as much — if not more — than the apathy of dairy industry leaders and elected officials is the apathy of farmers to speak up and do something. So many are unhappy with the way things are, yet don't bother to show up and learn what could be done. They complain about boards of directors for their milk cooperatives, farm organizations, cooperatives, and the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board), yet the same people keep getting reelected to those boards.
They say the future belongs to those who show up, and it's true. It also takes a lot more courage to stand up to your friends and peers than it does to stand up to your enemies, and in this case it rings true. Last week, Karyn Schauf, president of the Barron County Farm Bureau, of which I'm also a member, personally invited about 20 farmers to a meeting covering the material that Wisconsin Farmers Union and National Farmers Organization are presenting at the Dairy Together Roadshow looking at potential solutions to our laundry list of woes. Maybe half of those farmers came. The others either had other things going on that day or simply weren't interested.
Every single dairy herd (the Schaufs' Indianhead Holsteins included) represented at the small meeting in Barron had about 100 cows or less. Every single cow represented at that table had a name, a face, and a personality all her own, and we recognize that. Wisconsin is not America's Dairyland because of cow numbers or pounds of milk produced, but because of Wisconsin's farm families.
I'm tired of being told that consolidation is the status quo when it is abundantly clear our end buyers want their milk to come from family farms. According to food science and technology firm Eurofins, 93 percent of consumers surveyed believe it is important to support family farms and that family farms benefit local communities. I want to explicitly mention smaller family farms because those are the herds we're losing at a disproportionate rate compared to other herd size categories, and once they're gone, it's not likely we'll ever get them back. We're rapidly destroying the style of agriculture consumers are consistently saying they want.
So many of our fellow dairymen claim that they don't know what to do or it's pointless to try and change things, yet they don't show up to meetings like the ones Wisconsin Farmers Union and the National Farmers Organization are putting on across the state and country. At the very least you'd get off the farm for a couple of hours and a free meal. I get it; farming is hard and it's usually exhausting. Fatigue and stress are constant companions. I maybe get 5 hours of sleep at night before dragging myself out of bed to go do chores.
But, if you really care, you'd find the energy to at least open your mind to some possible solutions. After all, if there's nothing that can be done to salvage and heal our once-vibrant and diverse dairy industry, why are any of us still milking cows?
Olson is a dairy farmer, writer, and photographer from Chetek.