The Changing Face of Agriculture in Wisconsin

Big farms keep getting bigger. Midsized farms keep disappearing. In the shadow of these seismic changes in the rural Wisconsin landscape, tiny farms have proliferated, fed by consumer demand for local eats and healthy choices. A look at what’s driving the supersizing, and microsizing, and what it means for the rest of us.

Late afternoon spring sunshine beats down on Oren Jakobson as he picks his way through long rows of newly planted greens. All around, the first shoots of kale, onions, carrots, lettuce, peas and radishes push through the soil at Field Notes Farm, a tiny patch not much more than a clearing in the surrounding woods in the central Wisconsin community of Custer.

Jakobson’s slender build and slowly browning complexion show a man who has spent all spring outside. His face still radiates an adolescent softness at the age of 28. Everything about him puts the lie to the slogan on his T-shirt: “Beer is the reason I wake up Every [sic] afternoon.” On this day, as on most, Jakobson and his partner, Polly Dalton, have been up since dawn.

He squats to show off one of their latest acquisitions – a new system of automated valves that controls the flow of water through hoses that irrigate their crops. With an app on his iPhone, Jakobson can turn each valve on and off or set a timer to do the job. “We can put water right where we need it,” he says.

Spring is their busiest time – sowing, sprouting seeds, beating back bugs and weeds without chemicals or pesticides, even filling out paperwork. Harvest begins in June. That’s when they go out to sell at area farmers markets and to a handful of grocery stores and restaurants. But most of what they produce fills about four dozen cardboard boxes delivered biweekly or monthly to subscribers who have paid in advance for a season’s worth of produce in Amherst, Appleton and Stevens Point.

And they do it all from just two acres – no larger than the yard of many an affluent suburban home. Jakobson, who studied mathematics at Lawrence University and applies its logic in planning out his farm’s planting and future, believes he and Dalton are on a path that can sustain them. They have no plans to increase their acreage.

Photo by Sep + Stell.

“What we represent is some people who have made a choice to do something we find value in and is fulfilling to us and purposeful,” he says. “We feed people.”

Getting bigger, getting smaller

The farms that slide past our car windows as we rush down interstate highways form part of Wisconsin’s wallpaper and are a core piece of our identity as America’s Dairyland. But the wallpaper has been changing. Conventional farms are getting bigger than ever, even as their numbers shrink. That’s readily visible. Less visible is an opposite development: Small farms – even really small farms – are on the rise, as well.

Wisconsin has lost nearly one out of six farms over the last three decades, and U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show only two groups – the largest and the smallest – are increasing in number.

In 2012, the USDA reported Wisconsin had over 2,200 farms with 1,000 or more acres each; that’s more than twice the number (950) in 1982. Midsized farms of between 50 and 999 acres fell by nearly a third over that time.

Yet in that same 30-year period, the number of farms smaller than 50 acres soared by nearly 60 percent – from 14,500 in 1982 to 23,000 in 2012. Fueled by (and conversely, driving) changing consumer tastes of the palate and the conscience, these farms are plowing a furrow or two in Wisconsin’s $88 billion agricultural economy.

“People [who are] doing farming on the side, or, because of a specialty niche, they’re able to generate enough income to maintain the lifestyle they desire,” says Dick Straub, senior associate dean at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Just a few examples: organic farms such as Field Notes; specialists who raise esoteric crops or livestock (ginseng, alpacas); and farmers who raise free-range and pasture-grazed poultry and livestock.

Fondy Opens Farm

To see a snapshot of farming going small, you barely have to leave Milwaukee. Near Port Washington, a 40-acre tract of farmland rents plots to small commercial vegetable growers. It’s run by the Fondy Food Center farmers market on the city’s North Side.

Photo courtesy of Fondy Farms.

Fondy traces its history back 99 years and has a long heritage as an outlet for immigrants, says Fondy’s farm director, Stephen Petro. German settlers sold produce there in its earliest years; some 80 years later, Hmong refugees who arrived after the Vietnam War became its main vendors.

Thrust into an urban, industrial culture, the mainly rural Hmong pursued farming not just for income but as a lifeline to their traditional culture, Petro explains. But that lifeline was frayed, in large part by the sheer difficulty in finding reasonably priced and suitable land that they could use year after year. By 2011, the Fondy market had lost half its participating growers, Petro says: “The vast majority of those vendors were retiring from farming not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t get consistent land access.”

Fondy stepped in, leasing property north of Port Washington, just 30 miles from Milwaukee, from a private landowner for farmers to use and hiring Petro to manage the program. “Our current acreage is all rented out now,” he says. “We have a waiting list of six farmers.” And the market now runs at full capacity on Saturdays, although it’s not quite full other days of the week.

The makeup of its participants is evolving, from veteran farmers to increasing numbers of first-timers, Petro says. Growers agree to use organic methods (they don’t have to be certified – an expensive and paperwork-laden process) and to sell some of their harvest at the Fondy market in Milwaukee.

Fondy charges the farmers $150 an acre to rent for a year. Plots range from a quarter-acre to 12 acres; most are two to four acres. Rice grows in one experimental plot and hops – used by Company Brewing in Milwaukee – grow in another.

Most of the growers don’t discuss how well they’re doing financially. Still, the market’s executive director, Jennifer Casey, points to retention rates: “We have farmers who’ve been selling at the market for decades. Clearly they feel their sales are worth returning year after year.”

Small (but growing) Family Farm

Many small farms, though, are definitely finding ways to turn a profit. One is the aptly named Small Family Farm in western Wisconsin. Neither of Small Family’s owners, Jillian and Adam Varney, grew up on a farm, but they’ve worked in agriculture for more than a decade. Their farm consists of 21 acres, although they use just nine to grow organic vegetables.

Pulling weeds one morning among the snap peas while chatting on her mobile phone, Jillian Varney recounts her journey. As a teen growing up with skin problems in Dubuque, Iowa, “I fell into a crew of health nut people who were giving me advice in what to do” and introduced her to organic food, she recalls.

She and Adam met in 2005 when both were working on an organic farm near Viroqua. They began their own farm a year after meeting, buying land through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. In the years since, they’ve enrolled 300 subscribers in their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program from across the southwestern corner of the state and reaching as far as Madison, using a similar veggies-in-a-box delivery model as Field Notes Farm and other small organic growers.

“We’re surviving entirely off of farm income,” Jillian says, which is enough to raise their family and hire employees.

Growing demand suggests a continuing future for what the Varneys and other organic growers provide. In 2014, Wisconsin organic food sales topped $200 million, up 51 percent from 2008, according to the agriculture department. Nationally, the increase has been an even more dramatic 72 percent in the same six-year period, with 2014 sales approaching $5.5 billion.

They’re not all from small farms, of course: The average Wisconsin organic farm has 186 acres, based on USDA surveys. But with lower expenses – no bills for chemical fertilizers or patented seeds, for instance – farmers who practice organic methods may find much smaller-scale operations more sustainable.

And those who take the CSA route can finance their business without racking up bank debt. It works like this: Farms sign up subscribers, who pay an upfront cost with the promise of eating locally grown produce throughout the summer and fall. Some health insurers have begun subsidizing CSA benefits for policyholders; some employers are doing the same.

“We have 300 people who get food from us every week, people who know our names,” Jillian Varney says. Payment in advance – $360 for the season to have produce delivered every other week, $595 to get weekly delivery – provides capital throughout the growing season and helps deepen their relationships with customers. “We have people who kind of have our backs, and we’re connected throughout the season,” Varney says.

The Supersizing of Dairy Farms

Among conventional farms, the biggest are even bigger, and the small and medium-sized farms are getting bigger, too.

When David Daniels was a boy on his family’s farm in the 1960s and ’70s, their herd totaled 50 cows. After earning a dairy science degree at UW-Madison, he came back home in 1977 to help run the operation. Twenty years later, in 1997, Daniels and two neighboring farmers in their Kenosha County town of Brighton pooled resources to create Mighty Grand Dairy.

Dvid Daniels stands by cows that produce about 6,000 pounds of milks daily at Mighty Grand Dairy. Photo by Will Skaggs.

At 550 cows, the Mighty Grand Dairy herd is more than 10 times as large as the one Daniels grew up with, and five times the average Wisconsin herd. The collective includes 1,150 acres of farmland, a majority of it used to grow animal feed for its cows.  Most of the 6,000 gallons of milk produced daily at the farm is sent off to be made into mozzarella cheese for frozen pizzas.

Though far from the state’s largest farm, Mighty Grand Dairy offers a snapshot of the growth and consolidation that has pervaded conventional farming in recent decades. Farm economists point to some reasons behind it: Larger operations with bigger economies of scale can borrow more easily the five- and six-figure sums of cash needed for equipment; today’s farm families have fewer children, and fewer yet who seem interested in joining the next generation to work the land.

Daniels, 61, explains still another impetus: Bigger farms make it easier for farm families to have more flexible schedules, including the time off that many who don’t live on farms take for granted.

“Running any livestock operation is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job,” says Steven Deller, an economist at UW-Madison/Extension. “The only way to get ‘family time,’ like going to the kids’ soccer games, is to get big enough to have hired help.”

Mighty Grand Dairy employs 13 people outside the three families who own it, assigned to specialized tasks from herdsman to mechanic. “Thirty years ago I worked more with the dairy cows,” Daniels says.  “Today I work more with the employees.”

Tension Points

Persistent and swelling consumer demands – for locally produced food, for organic food, for meat from animals raised and fed in pastures – all help create the niche many smaller farms seek to fill. They put some pressure on conventional farms.

A case in point: More than 20 years ago the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone – rBGH for short. But in the face of relentless opposition – including concerns that it might harm the health of the animals – many processors demand milk only from cows that have not been given it.

Ripon farmer Chris Pollack changed processors after one imposed that rule; he uses the hormone “on a very limited basis, only on certain cows” and contends it has prolonged the life of some. Beaver Dam farmer Andrea Brossard sees no safety hazard from rBGH and calls the push against it “a lot of fear marketing.” Still, she notes, it has never been given to her family’s herd.

There are other tensions between conventional farms and their much smaller counterparts. The chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers in wide use have helped farmers reap ever larger yields; to their proponents, they’re an unalloyed boon that have made American farms the most productive in the world. Their absence, of course, is among the chief selling points of organic products.

Finding themselves on the defensive, conventional farmers blame organic food promoters who tar their methods. But they also see another factor: today’s greater cultural gulf between agriculture and the rest of society.  “There’s so few of us in production agriculture anymore – less than 2 percent of the population,” Brossard observes.

Brossard, who worked in ag-related public relations before returning full-time to farming, responds by inviting “everyone from grocers to retailers to chefs” to her family’s farm. Meeting face to face, “they know that we’re not some big conglomerate producing their food.”

From the other side of the conflict, Jillian Varney admits she has softened her own attitude. She’s still a firm believer in organic produce and sees widespread chemical use in farming as a threat to groundwater and soil. Their use “saddens me,” she says.

Still, she looks more sympathetically on the conventional farms whose proprietors are her neighbors: “I used to have a lot of animosity and disgust associated with farms like that. But now that I’m a farmer, they’re dependent on the weather, just as we are. They’re trying to make a living, just as we are. They’re real people, too, with real families and kids, just as we are. It’s been humanized.”

Erik Gunn is a contributing editor at Milwaukee Magazine.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.