The fragile life of rain-dependent farmsThey’re deep into the marsh grass now, mowing spots that haven’t been dry for 25 years.
By: By Mike Nichols, Superior Telegram
They’re deep into the marsh grass now, mowing spots that haven’t been dry for 25 years.
“The ground is that hard,” said Scott Peterson, who works on a decent-sized dairy farm in drought-ravaged Berlin, Wis.
It’s a troubling irony for farmers worried about feed all across the southern half of Wisconsin. There’s solid earth even in the old marshlands that have been wet since another generation tilled the fields. But if the rain doesn’t come soon, a lot of the farms, the smaller ones at least, could sink for good.
They’re not quitting yet.
“Not quite yet,” said Richard Albright, who had a nice farm himself until the last big drought in 1988 and now runs a trucking firm out of Omro. “But they’re wondering what to do.”
The drought has gone on so long now in some places that there’s no more hay coming up. And at $17 per hundredweight, milk prices haven’t been all that great either. So that’s two things that need to rise up. And if they don’t?
The dairy farmers “are going to say, ‘The hell with it’,” said Albright, who hauls livestock to auction. “I think they will. The small guys will. The big guys are geared up still for half a year.”
Albright was standing near his truck outside the Equity livestock cooperative in Lomira shortly before an auction. The farmers and the truckers with their pick-ups and their trailers were lined up 15 deep, about normal.
But if the rains don’t come soon, and the cows start running out of local feed, the trucks full of animals being moved off the smaller farms will be lined up all the way down Industrial Drive to Highway 49. The farmers are going to have to start selling just like Albright did 24 years ago.
“That was the last bad one we had,” said the 68-year-old. “Took everyone’s feed.”
“It don’t rain in a week and a half,” Albright told me, “you stop back here then and I’ll tell you how bad the farmers are crying.”
There are still well over 70,000 farms in this state. Debt levels are generally low in comparison to the farm crisis days of the early 1980s, and 2011 was a record year for many of them, especially grain producers.
Wisconsin is a big place and some farmers still wake to verdant, green fields. But others hardly sleep at all. Droughts are capricious things.
For once, it’s the north that is flourishing while the south suffers. Ellis Kahn has farms in both Kewaskum in the southeastern part of the state, and in Rusk County in the northwest. Rusk, he said, “is beautiful. They get rain every two, three days.” It’s different in the south.
Kahn has faith in the perseverance of even the smallest farms.
“The smaller guy especially is very conservative,” said Kahn, waiting too for the auction. “My dad used to say they’ll hold on to a buffalo (nickel) till it screams.”
Folks, though, can’t hold on forever. Some farmers in Illinois are already mowing over their corn fields. In Wisconsin’s Marquette County, the most recent crop report was one line: “Everything without irrigation looks dead.” There is a frightening fragility to life on the farm.
As the farmers and truckers pulled into the cooperative, there was a sign that directed the guys with cattle and calves to the left, sheep and goats straight ahead. Another week without rain and they’ll be all sorts of people following those signs. Right now, they’re just looking for a sign from above.
“Keep praying for rain,” said Peterson. “Show up at the prayer meetings with an umbrella.”
“That’s all we can do.”
Pray while pinching hard on the buffaloes and moving deep into the marsh grass. Until that too is gone.
Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com.
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