Historical struggles deter next generation of farmers


From a young age, BobbiJo DeGolyer said she knew she didn’t want to be a farmer.

DeGolyer was born on her family’s 320-acre, six-generation farm in Markesan, Wis., where her parents raise cattle, pigs and chickens.

Now, at 33, she lives 15 miles away in Ripon with her two sons and works at the public library.

“We struggled my entire life to make it work,” DeGolyer sad. “Even as a child I knew I didn’t have any desire to be a farmer or to marry into a farm.”

Watching her parents grapple with relentless financial insecurity driven by low commodity prices, coupled with ever-increasing costs of input, swayed DeGolyer against following their path.

DeGolyer’s story is similar to that of many children of Wisconsin farmers. U.S. Census data shows that the number of farmers in Wisconsin decreased by 10 percent between 2007 and 2012, and the number of farmers in DeGolyer’s generation or younger is shrinking as well.

“The older I got, the more bitterness I had. You could make more money working at a gas station and that was really discouraging,” DeGolyer said.

Kalton Bauman, DeGolyer’s father, said an increasing technological presence in agriculture has driven up input costs, and profits return to technology companies, not farmers.

At the same time, he said commodity prices have not kept up with inflation, while other costs — like pesticides, fertilizers and equipment — have soared.

“When I look up and down my road, I see more and more empty farms. As the cost of inputs increase, farmers either sell out or file for bankruptcy.”

“Inputs can be expensive and not be a burden as long as the price of outputs is staying ahead of them,” said Bruce Jones, UW-Madison professor of agriculture and applied economics. “But what farmers have consistently seen throughout time is that they’re always under a price-cost squeeze and their margin is constantly under pressure.”

The retail price for a pound of sirloin averages $8.99, according to The National Farmers Union. According their data, only $2.01 will make its way back into the Baumans’ pockets.

“Consumers don’t want their grocery bills to go up,” Bauman said. “Americans want cheap food.”

By contrast, the cost of Bauman’s costs have risen continuously since he took over farming for his parents in the mid-1970s.

Bauman said he remembers feed corn sold at $3.80 a bushel in the mid-1970s, when he first began farming, and that he could buy a bag of it for $40. In 2017, that same bushel averaged $3.50, but the price of Bauman’s feed corn is $230.

For Bauman, who at one point kept 80 beef cattle and 300 pigs, the difference adds up quickly.

“I like to farm,” Bauman said. “I just wish I could get paid for it. American food policy has killed American farmers. ”

Bauman began farming around the same time Earl Butz, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Richard Nixon, declared that farmers needed to either “get big or get out.”

Butz slashed remnants of New Deal farm subsidies meant to protect small farmers like Bauman from glutted markets, and he replaced them with subsidised insurance policies that promoted land acquisition, farm consolidation and industrialisation.

“When I look up and down my road, I see more and more empty farms. As the cost of inputs increase, farmers either sell out or file for bankruptcy.”

In 1970, the average American farm was 390 acres, a little larger than the Baumans’. By the end of the decade, that area had risen to 426 acres, according to the USDA. Jones said farmers turned to borrowing as a way to finance modernization and growth.

By 1980, record production led to a crash in commodity values, and farmers across the country were stranded with a decade’s worth of debt — a crisis historians have compared to The Dust Bowl.

Bauman said that was the first time in his memory farming felt like it had departed from “the good and normal.”

“In the ‘70s, we had money in our savings account,” Bauman said. “We were ok.”

But despite the early brush with financial trouble, Bauman didn’t stop farming.

“We hung in there because we were hopeful things would get better,” he said. “It’s been said that farmers are optimists — good, bad or otherwise.”

For the past three years, Jones said farmers across the midwest are once again struggling to profit in a saturated market, and many rely on second jobs to support their farms and their families.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that, on average, over 80 percent of farming income will be from non-farming jobs.

“We don’t want it to get to the point where we’re going into other businesses just to support the farm,” DeGolyer said.

However, that is exactly what her family has done.

During the summer, Bauman spends his weekends travelling around the state, selling his meats at farmers’ markets. Often, his day will begin at 3 a.m. and he won’t return home until 9 at night — all time he could have been farming. He and his son also started a catering company that uses products harvested from their farm.

At 64, Bauman said he is working more hours than he was at age 40.

But even the income from two side businesses wasn’t enough to keep the Bauman’s farm operational. To make up the difference, Bauman began selling off his herd and taking out more loans backed against the farm itself. Defaulting on them meant losing land.

“It takes money to make money,” Bauman said. “But the thing we need is profit. You can’t borrow yourself out of debt, just like you can’t borrow yourself into profit.”

Bauman said that loans are always a gamble, but that for him and many other farmers across the state, they continue to be one of few options.

“It’s a balancing act,” Bauman said. “When I look up and down my road, I see more and more empty farms. As the cost of inputs increase, farmers either sell out or file for bankruptcy.”

In 2017, Wisconsin saw the second highest rate of farm bankruptcies in the nation. Most of those were Chapter 12, which Jones explained entail loan restructuring, rather than farm liquidation. But he said it’s still an indication that the Wisconsin agricultural community is facing economic stress.

The Baumans were among those who were foreclosed.

“Even as a child I knew I didn’t have any desire to be a farmer or to marry into a farm.”

“It was sobering and humbling,” Bauman said. “We knew we had to make serious changes.”

So the Baumans hired an analyst, who told them that they cut a profit margin of $50 for every head of cattle they brought to market, and that the cost of raising pigs was more than the value of the pigs themselves.

The analyst’s long-term suggestion? “Stop farming.”

Ultimately, the Baumans were able to stave off foreclosure by selling half of their acreage to a neighbor.

In the wake of the foreclosure, Bauman said that he and his son plan to shift more of their focus to their catering business. But the future of their farm remains uncertain. Farmers can’t simply turn in a two week’s notice when they decide they are ready to move on, Bauman points out.

Despite all of these factors, Bauman said he might not be ready to give up yet.

“As a farmer, my roots run deep. Farmers like to be able to pass their land on to their children,” Bauman said. “But when their children see their city cousins working five days a week instead of seven and still earning more money, I understand why they think ‘why do this?’”


Sydney Widell byline box

 

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