Family Farms Continue to Disappear in Wisconsin

Sarah Charles

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Wisconsin farmland.Photo by Sarah Charles.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we all knew it. It particularly changed patterns of employment and labor trends as it decimated industries such as retail, tourism, and restaurants and hospitality businesses.

It also hastened the extinction of the small family farm in Wisconsin.

In 2020, the western region of Wisconsin led the entire nation in Chapter 12 bankruptcy filings (a special category created for farms) by small farmers. This was a feat the region also accomplished in 2017. In 2020, 39 farmers filed for bankruptcy in western Wisconsin, while the eastern region of the state also saw 30 filings.

Although a chapter 12 filing often allows small farmers to restructure their farm business and keep working in it, there's no doubt it's still a troubling path for many of those living and working in agriculture to take. Before the pandemic, many farmers and those working with them found that filing for bankruptcy and restructuring their business, either to find a specialized niche or to increase their efficiency, worked to keep farmers on their farms.

That has changed during the pandemic, however.

Even before lockdowns were imposed and schools were closed, supply chain disruption and lower demand for milk made the prices that dairy farmers received for their product plummet. Most experts speculated that China refusing imports and other market uncertainties were adversely affecting milk prices and futures.

Traditional Wisconsin dairy farms are not the only ones suffering. Farms on which crops, vegetables, or other products are grown and marketed directly to consumers have also indicated they are struggling with trying to afford health insurance and adequate child care. Closed farmers' markets and restaurants that focused on local food sources all affected the demand for both meat and vegetable and other crops.

Even industries you might not typically think of when you think of "farming" in Wisconsin are being affected. Recent news articles describe the efforts underway to vaccinate the minks (using a specially created veterinary vaccine) on Wisconsin mink farms to keep them safe from the coronavirus. This has been done in response to thousands of minks dying on Wisconsin mink farms during 2020.

Wisconsin is still home to nearly 7,000 dairy farms and exported more than $3.37 billion of agricultural and food products in 2020. Relief programs aimed at helping farmers in the state are also giving some reason to hope that Wisconsin's agricultural industry will be able to recover from economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

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