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Dairies dropping family farms

When news broke last week of farmers being dropped by Grassland Dairy, I was sad for farmers affected, and frustrated at markets and memories of the life I'd hoped to lead. When I was a young girl, trailing Dad to the barn to feed calves, I boldl...

When news broke last week of farmers being dropped by Grassland Dairy, I was sad for farmers affected, and frustrated at markets and memories of the life I'd hoped to lead.

When I was a young girl, trailing Dad to the barn to feed calves, I boldly declared my plans: "I'm going to be a farmer, too!"

My world revolved around our Chippewa County dairy farm, helping Dad with morning chores and heading back to the barn when the school bus dropped me off. Some of my best memories were spent with Dad, beneath the whitewashed barn beams. Through the big, weathered door on the end of the barn walk, we watched the sunrise and dreamed of the future when I might raise my own family and herd at our Split Ridge Dairy.

I was angry, tear-filled at age 17 when Dad told me he didn't want me to follow in his footsteps.

We were in the milk house, waiting for the milkers to finish rinsing before the evening chores. We leaned against the silver bulk tank, catching up, and pondering the world's problems when he said, "I don't think there's a future for you in dairy farming."

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He pulled out the latest milk check - another price drop -a meager check for the work that kept us toiling from dawn 'til dusk. With feed prices climbing, milk prices dropping and a poor stroke of luck that meant buying replacements, Dad had become a regular at our small town bank. He was a sound farm manager and worked full-time at the local feed mill for the insurance and extra paycheck. But with milk prices falling, our chances of digging out looked slim.

So life changed course.

Dad continued with the dairy farm, but I went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to major in marketing with an animal science minor. I landed in a newsroom, sharing stories of farmers and rural folks across Wisconsin.

Eventually, I signed on with Farmers Union and a chance to work on behalf of family farmers on issues affecting farms and rural towns.

A few years after I left the farm, Dad sold the Split Ridge herd. I remember the dreary day - following the cattle broker as he walked through the barn, eyeing cows I'd raised from calves as he considered which would bring the prettiest penny. I remember all too well that emotional last milking - Dad and I gathered round the bulk tank, this time with my infant son, Blake, who slept peacefully in the milk house as Dad and I tearfully brought in the last milking units and hung them over the peg where they'd stay.

When the cattle trailer backed up beside the milk house, our big Brown Swiss, Brownie, was among the first to load. I paused to scratch her head one last time before nudging her across the gutter and out the door. One by one, the cows filed out, closing a chapter on the family farm.

A few years later, I felt the same pang watching my uncle's cows head out the door for the last time. Two farms erased from Wisconsin's dairy industry. Two among thousands lost in the past few years.

The fates of many more Wisconsin farms also may have been sealed. Many farmers reached into their mailboxes to find a letter from Grassland, announcing that as of May 1, the dairy would no longer accept their farm's milk. The problem, according to Grassland, is a policy put in place by the Canadian government to discourage imports of ultra-filtered milk in the Canadian market and Grassland losing its market for about 1 million pounds of milk per day.

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Ironically, at the same time it is dropping these farmers, the Greenwood-based dairy is reportedly behind a 5,000-cow expansion of Cranberry Creek Dairy in Dunn County. At a 70-pound daily production average, that herd expansion would add 350,000 pounds a day to Grassland's corporate-owned supply.

In mid-March, Nasonville Dairy also notified a group of producers they were being bumped. In a recent article in The Country Today, Marathon County farmer John Litza was featured as one of the farmers struggling to find a market for his milk after being axed by Nasonville.

"We've had to beg and borrow to find any place to ship our milk to," Litza told The Country Today. "All the plants tell me they have too much milk." He believes some plants in the state are buying excess milk from out of state and notes one plant near Green Bay reportedly has been picking up Michigan milk on the cheap - $6 per hundredweight rather than $14 for Wisconsin milk.

Something seems wrong with this picture.

Some days, I'm thankful for Dad's foresight. He knew we were on a runaway train headed for heartache. Other days, I'm angry. Angry that I didn't try to fight it out and do what I love, no matter the struggle.

But as I hear of those letters rolling in and see fear stirring among my dairy farming friends, I'm angry at a long-broken system and saddened by a system that claims "bigger is better!" It's a system that promotes overproduction, then destroys family farms when they've become too efficient.

Generations of sweat and tears could come to a close because of a sheet of paper in the mailbox - the end of a farm legacy.

Danielle Endvick is communications director for Wisconsin Farmers Union. She and her husband recently bought her family farm in Holcombe and are working to start a new chapter on the farm where they're raising their two young sons.

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