As Wisconsin farmers prepare to start another spring of fieldwork, the latest census data are raising a troubling question about the future of agriculture in America’s Dairyland: Will Wisconsin run out of farmers?
Wisconsin is experiencing a steep drop in the number of new farmers, far steeper than in surrounding states. Also in decline is the number of the state’s small farms — which offer fertile ground for new farmers.
While there is almost no chance that Wisconsin will confront a future without farmers, the data are worth the concern of farm organizations, university officials and policymakers.
Farming is not just the source of Wisconsin’s nickname. It is a huge contributor to the state’s economy. On-farm activity accounted for 153,900 jobs, $8.9 billion in total income, and $20.5 billion in industrial sales, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture.
But data from that same every-five-years census, covering 2007 to 2012, showed the number of farmers in operation in Wisconsin for less than 10 years fell by 27.5 percent. Other Midwest states showed declines, but none dropped so steeply. In Iowa, the drop was 14.9 percent. In Illinois, it was 17.4 percent. In Nebraska, the number of new farmers was up 9.8 percent.
Wisconsin’s larger decline occurred despite its reputation for offering programs that help new farmers get started.
There was a mitigating factor. Wisconsin is continuing to need fewer farmers. That’s because of the long-term nationwide trend toward farms growing larger and fewer as farmers sell out, often to neighboring farmers who expand their operations.
That suits another trend — toward using advancing technology to farm more acres and raise more livestock more cost-effectively.
But the national trend toward larger farms is at the expense of medium-sized farms, not small farms. Small farms have often been cited as an area of growth, where new farmers’ new ideas and energy can tie into consumer trends such as demand for organic products, buy-local programs, community-supported agriculture and more.
Wisconsin’s decline in small farms diverges from that storyline, which does not bode well for the state’s economic future.
Despite the worrisome figures in the census report, the data still provide reasons for optimism about farming’s future in Wisconsin. The state’s farmers earn 1 percent more net cash income than the national average. And the market value of the state’s farm products rose 30 percent from 2007 to 2012.
Nonetheless, the declines in new farmers and small farms should prompt state leaders to revisit the report “The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin,” produced by the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters in 2007. The report contained recommendations for improving prospects for farmers and rural communities, from developing new strategies for farmer cooperatives, to encouraging angel investing in agriculture to supporting bioenergy initiatives.
Farming is too valuable to the state’s economy to allow problems to go unsolved.