MADISON, Wis. — The problem for a lot of farm families is that they work with small margins and excessive danger.
“The risk comes in the form of constantly changing markets and weather and now the impact of climate change where we see these rain events occurring on an annual basis we use to think occurred once per century — 11- to 12-inch rainfalls in a single watershed,” mentioned Dan Smith, president and CEO of Cooperative Network that helps 200 cooperatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“Also, the competition for land and resources and the need to constantly change and adapt all the time that the family is changing, aging, and mental and physical health is deteriorating as we try to keep up with the treadmill of modern agriculture,” mentioned Smith throughout a Digital Dialogue hosted by Grassland 2.0
Grassland 2.0 is a collaborative group of producers, researchers and private and non-private sector individuals working to develop pathways for producers to obtain elevated profitability, manufacturing stability and nutrient and water effectivity by grassland-based agriculture.
“It’s amazing that through all of this we have so many farm families that work so hard to stay there and how many generations removed from the farm still feel that pull back to the ancestral land,” mentioned Smith, who has been concerned within the agricultural business for 40 years.
“They remember being with their parents, grandparents or great grandparents on the farm and it really holds that cultural lock over the time of this constant change in agriculture.”
It is ironic, Smith mentioned, that the agricultural business which values heritage, custom and the household tie to ancestral land has to deal with fixed change.
“That change is driven by advancements in technology, genetics and nutrition,” mentioned Smith, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. “We can do things today in agriculture that when I started farming in 1978 would have been a pipe dream — the technology, precision agriculture and equipment have changed dramatically in the course of one person’s career.”
Over the final a number of a long time, good rates of interest have supplied credit score to farmers to develop and broaden, Smith mentioned.
“That has brought another generation onto the farm and the result of that is specialization and consolidation,” Smith mentioned.
“We’ve seen new markets emerge like organic and we’ve also really entered into the international market which has changed agriculture a great deal,” he mentioned.
The American shopper has gained loads from these developments in agriculture.
“We have the world’s most plentiful food supply, we spend the lowest percentage of income on food and that food supply is consistent, safe and reliable, which is the envy of the world,” Smith mentioned. “It has freed up much of our society to pursue other interests so we have a small percentage of people left at the farm.”
However, Smith mentioned, there are additionally losses.
“We’ve lost a significant part of our vibrant rural population and small towns, engagement in rural communities and main street businesses, strong school districts and the support system of many rural businesses that supplied farmers,” Smith mentioned.
“We’ve strayed further from our farm heritage and land ethic and that’s a result of absentee agriculture,” he mentioned. “I think a farm needs a farmer and a lot of farms don’t have a farmer dedicated to that piece of land 365 days a year. You can’t uphold that relationship in a landlord-tenant, absentee commodity-driven agriculture.”
Smith serves on the board of administrators for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection.
“At one of our board meetings, a person in the dairy processing industry said he believes that we will lose one-third of the dairy farms in the state in the next five years,” Smith mentioned.
“Most of the dairymen are in the 60s, a lot don’t have kids returning to the farm, most are on farms that need a tremendous amount of reinvestment and they’ve been trying to keep up with the treadmill of agriculture,” he mentioned.
Many dairy farmers, Smith mentioned, are in a sandwich era.
“They are caught between the responsibility to the generation that went before for continuing the farm and the next generation that that has found other ways to live and is probably not returning to the farm unless major changes are made,” he mentioned.
Smith sees alternatives and challenges forward for farm families.
“In a perfect world I think we would be able to recreate a new land ethic that can utilize the new technology, but still protect our precious natural resources,” he mentioned.
With distant work, Smith mentioned, there are some alternatives to repopulate rural communities.
“We have a long ways to go to reboot our rural communities and to refill rural schools,” he mentioned.
Farming is a enterprise, it’s always altering and the United States has an exquisite meals system, Smith mentioned.
“But we’ve paid for all of that at a cost and the cost has not been totaled yet,” Smith mentioned.
“There are a lot of people who have big decisions to make about their future as they age and the type of rural culture and agricultural ethic we’re going to develop in this country,” he mentioned.
For extra details about Grassland 2.0, go to www.grasslandag.org.