Dairy Business Association Director of Government Affairs
When DBA was formed 18 years ago, the future of dairy farming in Wisconsin looked dim. Local permitting headaches had obstructed the development of new dairies and the expansion of existing farms. The dairy community was facing multiple crises, both practical and existential.
The association was critical to turning that tide. After hard-fought battles and a lot of bridge building, the livestock facility siting law was passed. This law stopped the steady decline in the state’s cow population. New farms were built. The processing community made huge new investments. Dairy had found its footing again.
Unfortunately, it feels like we are approaching a regulatory tipping point once again. Local regulations on new and existing farms are on the rise. The state Department of Natural Resources seems to become more difficult to work with every day.
Some might read this and think it’s good news that dairy expansion has slowed in Wisconsin. Don’t I know what the milk price is? Didn’t I hear about those farmers who were dropped by their processor? However, the growth of dairy farming in our neighboring states has not helped with supply here. It has made the situation worse, imperiled Wisconsin’s pricing advantage and encouraged the growth of out-of-state processing capacity. Oversupply or not, none of this has been good for our state.
I write this column knowing that my article last month was one of celebration. After many years of work, we finally got a bill passed to protect existing investments in high-capacity wells. This is good news, and I hate to be the one to snap us back to the reality that numerous other issues were compounding as that high-capacity well debate lingered on. We have plenty of work to do as advocates for dairy farming.
We face a regulatory paradox. No month is better to illustrate this point than last month. During June Dairy Month, our farms host tens of thousands of people at breakfasts and other events. At the same time, there is a small, but very vocal, group of opponents who have an irrational fear/hatred of dairy farms, particularly large farms. These opponents are working hard to convince others to be afraid. The result is that people like dairy farms, but might also support policies that will force them into bankruptcy.
Concentrated animal feeding operations are accused of being the root of all kinds of societal ills. Some of the same people so critical of these large farms happily bring their children to a CAFO to eat pancakes and get their face painted. I witnessed this firsthand. You may have as well. Part of the explanation is that they have so demonized large farms, they probably would not believe the clean, well-operated, family-owned farm where they enjoyed a Saturday morning was a CAFO.
This shows us the importance of community engagement in everything we do. That was not a major focus for DBA back during the fight over livestock siting, but it most certainly is one now.
We are going to have to dig deep and really push to keep dairy farming from going beyond the regulatory tipping point. A point beyond which we would see farms, farmers and processors slowly leave our state. To succeed, we will need the help from lawmakers, regulators and the public.