Digging Deeper: Wisconsin dairy farmers struggle with low milk prices, tight labor

MADISON (WKOW) — Wisconsin’s dairy industry is changing. While more and more milk is being produced across the state, many farmers are struggling to survive.

Low milk prices is a key issue, with many farmers not getting enough money for their milk to cover production costs.

Carrie Mess, a dairy farmer in Watertown, says the farming lifestyle has been tough for her family in recent years.

"It’s been a true roller coaster," said Mess, who’s been farming with her husband, Patrick, for 10 years. "We’ve gone through the lowest prices in history to the highest prices in history back down to extremely low prices and that’s kind of the cycle we’re in now."

In 2009, farmers experienced the worst prices for their milk in recent history earning only $9.00 per hundredweight of milk. Then in 2014, that number skyrocketed to about $24.00 per hundredweight of milk. Now, in 2018, Mess says she only gets around $13.00 per hundredweight of milk.

"It’s a hard thing to be in a business where every day you walk out your door and it costs you money," said Mess.

Dairy Business Association President Mike North says the low prices are a result of increased milk production across the state.

"As inventory of our product has grown, prices of product have dropped and as they’ve fallen, milk prices have followed," said North.

John Pagel, a dairy farmer from the Green Bay area, has seen the industry evolve since he began milking cows in 1980.

"When I started milking cows we had 27,500 dairy farms now we got [less than] 9,000 farms," said Pagel. "It’s sad to see people go out of business that they want to be in."

Last year, the state lost 500 dairy farms, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

"People aren’t going to be able to survive at the milk prices where they’re at," said Pagel.

Besides falling milk prices, Pagel says labor is tight, as businesses continue to grow and more baby boomers retire.

"We have less people coming into the workforce than we have going out and so if we don’t alleviate that then the rope is just gonna get tighter and tighter," Pagel said.

Another key issue when it comes to the dairy industry is global trade. With President Trump threatening to cut the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, it has many in the industry on edge.

"73 percent of every dairy product that’s consumed in Mexico originated in the United States," said North. "That is a big trade partner for us, we can’t afford to lose that."

As farmers head into an uncertain future, Mess and her family are learning to adapt to what she calls "growing pains."

"There’s a lot of change on the horizon, dairy’s not exactly going to look like it did 20 years ago," said Mess. 

As many farmers struggle to survive, Pagel says Wisconsin is still "America’s Dairyland".

"[The dairy industry] is not dying," said Pagel. "The industry is going to be fine, it’s a bump in the road."

Mess agrees.

"We’re growing, we’re thriving, we’re changing," Mess said, in an optimistic tone. "We know that right now is bad but hopefully soon things will be better."

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