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Wisconsin Is Again Leading The Nation In Farm Bankruptcies


These have been really hard times for farmers in the state of Wisconsin. The state is leading the nation in farm bankruptcies. Nearly 10% of the state's dairy farmers alone may go out of business this year. Low milk prices have not been helping and neither have the Trump administration's trade and tariff policies. Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee has more.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: During just the last decade, about 40% of Wisconsin dairy farms have shut down. Mark Stephenson studies dairy policy at the University of Wisconsin and says milk prices have been low for five years.

MARK STEPHENSON: It's not that the low is so awfully low. It's that it's been persistent. Normally, these cycles are about three years in length, not five.

QUIRMBACH: Milk prices are low because supply still outpaces demand. Improved dairy science makes cows more productive. Stephenson says the extended low prices come as many farmers have drawn down their financial reserves.

In Jefferson, Wis., west of Milwaukee, an off-road vehicle is rolling through the barnyard at Chwala-T Acres. Jeremy Chwala says he and his family still grow corn, soybeans and other crops here, but he sold off his milk cows two years ago. Chwala says his hand was forced when he lost a contract with a local milk plant that had exported to Canada.

JEREMY CHWALA: We decided to disperse the herd because nobody was taking milk. There was such a glut of milk on the market, and the prices were terrible, and they had been terrible.

QUIRMBACH: With the loss of dairy income, Chwala now works in town changing tires at a service center. But he still raises calves for other farmers. With Mexico and China cutting back on importing U.S. dairy products, Chwala, who says he voted for Trump, now questions the president's trade war.

CHWALA: I hate to talk politics, but we needed a president to stand up to these other countries because they were taking advantage but he's affecting the farm economy because we don't have a market. You know, it's a global market nowadays. It ain't United States. It's global. And will it help? I think eventually. But how many people are going to suffer before it helps?

QUIRMBACH: Chwala says he's not sure if he'd vote for Trump again. While many of the Wisconsin dairy farmers who have left the business are small producers, even larger farms say they're hurt by the trade war. Julie Maurer's dairy near Manitowoc has more than 1,200 cows. At a recent open house promoting agriculture, Maurer said to eke out a profit, the farm has to run very lean.

JULIE MAURER: That we're not wasting labor and fuel and getting as much milk out of the cows as we can and as much production out of the land that we can. It really makes you take a double and triple-check at everything to make sure you're being efficient.

QUIRMBACH: Even with the bankruptcies, dairy is still a big player. Wisconsin's remaining 7,500 dairy farms, along with milk and cheese plants, contribute about $45 billion to the state. But the rural economy is suffering here. And while the Trump administration says it's willing to expand aid to farmers hurt by its trade war, it's unclear whether that will be enough for the president to again win the support of rural Wisconsin. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chuck Quirmbach is a Milwaukee-based reporter who covers developments and issues in Southeastern Wisconsin that are of statewide interest. He has numerous years of experience covering state government, elections, the environment, energy, racial diversity issues, clergy abuse claims and major baseball stadium doings. He enjoys covering all topics.