Wisconsin’s Fall Farm Markets Make For Smiles

The annual road trip to Arena in Iowa County never fails to make me happy. Waiting for just the right day with perfect fall temperatures and knowing all the squash and apples and other items will be stocked puts me in a perfect mood.

Wisconsin is perhaps at its best when one can drive into the country where mile after mile of leaves is starting to turn color. That color palette is matched with the piles of brightly colored pumpkins and corn shocks near the roadsides for sale.

On Saturday we took to the back roads and made our way to the place that has been a fall destination for about two decades. It never grows old to see a youngster trying to lift or drag a pumpkin that is far too big for their arms. Dad comes along to lift up just the perfect one selected by the kid.

Then there is the need to bite into one of the freshly baked apple cinnamon donuts, and this weekend with the tailgate of the pickup pulled down kids were doing just that as we arrived in the parking lot. Before we left it was essential to follow suit!

Carts were piled high with all sorts of gourds and squash waiting for the cashier to recall the various prices for the items, all the while joshing with the customers about that afternoon’s collegiate football games.

For all the rancor that was to be found wherever one turned the rest of the week, only smiles and gentle banter among complete strangers took place at that large farmer’s market. I mentioned to a young boy pushing his baby sister around in what looked to me to be a cumbersome carriage that next year she will be walking about on her own. He smiled and said, “it ain’t so bad once you get this thing moving”. Just perfectly said without missing a beat.

There is a slower pace to the country that, even in small doses, does make for an impact. James and I came home and removed all the items from the convertible and were amazed once on the picnic table that it all somehow had fit.

Lots of hard work from our farming sector of the state often does not get the full recognition from those who live in urban environs. Even if for only a few hours it would do everyone good to drive out into the country and stop along the way to talk and shop with the ones who make our kitchens so full of flavor and diversity.

Wisconsin Farm Woes Due To Donald Trump, Suffering Farmers Waiting For Chance At Ballot Box

The New Yorker has a must-read for Wisconsinites interested in understanding parts of the state they may not live in, or politicos who desire a better understanding of the electorate as we ahead to Election Day.  Since the article is quite remarkable for writing and information, and since I suspect a paywall might limit readers, I post portions of the longer read.

In 2016, after voting for Barack Obama twice, (Jerry) Volenec voted for Trump. Volenec had grown disenchanted with Obama after his Administration banned whole milk from schools and did little to slow the loss of family farms. “I wasn’t following politics closely,” he said. “I never listened to Trump give a speech, just commentary over the radio. I had the general impression that what’s wrong with the agricultural economy was that too many politicians were involved, and that having a businessman in the White House would benefit me.”

As rural Wisconsin’s fortunes have declined, its political importance has grown. Trump won the state by less than twenty-three thousand votes. If the 2020 election is close, Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania—the other Rust Belt states he flipped in 2016—and still win a second term by holding Wisconsin. Trump underperformed in the suburban counties of Milwaukee, the Republican Party’s stronghold, while overperforming in the state’s rural areas, where he won nearly two-thirds of the vote. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the largest shift in voting between Obama’s seven-point victory in Wisconsin, in 2012, and Trump’s one-point win came in communities that cast fewer than a thousand votes. (Nationally, Trump won sixty-two per cent of the rural vote.)

Four years ago, Trump promised to reverse the economic decline of family farmers. “Hillary Clinton wants to shut down family farms just like she wants to shut down the mines and the steelworkers,” he said, during a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. “We are going to end this war on the American farmer.” In early 2018, he launched a series of trade wars, which provoked China, Mexico, Canada, and the European Union into imposing penalties on American dairy products. Mexico, the largest importer of Wisconsin cheese, levied a twenty-five-per-cent tariff on American cheeses. Last summer, Trump allotted fifteen billion dollars in compensation to farmers, but the vast majority of it has gone to the largest farms. In a tweet, he called farmers “great patriots” and promised that they would eventually be better off.

In June, as Trump’s poll numbers dropped nationwide, the Washington Post reported that his campaign advisers were losing hope for Michigan and Pennsylvania, and would focus on holding Wisconsin. “It’s baked into the cake that Trump will lose the state’s large metro areas in a landslide, while the suburbs have been fleeing him,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me. “Trump can’t win a second term unless he racks up enormous margins in rural Wisconsin.”

For Volenec, Trump’s appeal vanished almost immediately. “If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him,” he said, when I visited him at his farm in February. As Trump’s trade wars escalated, Volenec’s problems worsened. In March, 2018, Canada effectively cut off all dairy imports from the United States, and milk from Michigan that had previously been exported began flooding into Wisconsin’s processing plants. The co-op where Volenec sent his milk for processing was now competing with cheap out-of-state milk, and put a cap on the amount that it would take from him. That week, Volenec heard about a meeting of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group, in nearby Dodgeville, to promote a version of supply management, a system used in Canada that sets a quota on the production of dairy, eggs, and poultry. Designed, like the New Deal policies, to prevent overproduction and to guarantee farmers a stable income, the system relies on higher prices for Canadian consumers. Trump’s trade war with Canada is aimed at dismantling supply management, which has long been deplored by Republican politicians. John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, called it “Soviet-style” agriculture. For Volenec, it was a revelation. “This was my first glimpse into a world where the dairy farmer is not subservient to The Market,” he wrote in an essay called “Groomed for Apocalypse.”

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Dairy farmers have felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic acutely. As schools and restaurants closed, they abruptly cancelled their contracts with milk bottlers and cheese factories. The price of milk dropped by more than thirty per cent, and some processors began asking their farmers to dump milk. By late April, as hungry people lined up at food banks, one farm had already dumped more than five million pounds of milk, according to “The Mid-West Farm Report.” Mitch Breunig, a dairy farmer in Sauk City, had to dump all of his morning milking for ten days. “We took a hundred-and-fifty-foot hose and ran it from the milking parlor right into the manure-storage unit in the barn,” he told me. Breunig wound up dumping eighty thousand pounds of milk, for which he received no money. “I would just look at it and think, Wow, everything we did was for nothing.”

State agencies issued protocols for dumping milk, which can pollute groundwater and decimate fish populations. Though Volenec has not had to dump any of his milk, he’s been worrying about the environmental costs of large-scale dairy farming, from water contamination to climate change. Manure runoff from industrial dairy farming has contributed to a dramatic increase in bacteria and nitrates in the state’s groundwater, according to a study funded in part by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. (A farm with twenty-five hundred cows produces as much waste as a city of four hundred thousand people.) The E.P.A. recently sampled the groundwater in a thirty-mile area of Juneau County that’s dense with dairy cows and found that sixty-five per cent of the sites had elevated levels of nitrates, which have been linked to birth defects, colon cancer, and “blue-baby syndrome,” a condition that reduces oxygen in an infant’s blood and can be fatal.

“You’re now looking at three or four generations of depletion,” Curt Meine, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me. “Depletion of rural communities, rural landscapes, rural soils and water, depletion of the land and local economies. And you have the brain drain that followed it. This is why we have this deep urban-rural divide. We have concentrated and exported the wealth. Everyone sees it, but neither party has wrestled with it. One party exploited it, the other party has ignored it.”

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On my way to pay a final visit to Jerry Volenec’s farm, I drove through the Driftless Area. The prairie grasses jutting through the snow, the little country churches, and the birch trees dotting the hillsides all quietly dazzled. I passed through Viroqua, near the headquarters of the Organic Valley dairy coöperative, one of the few economic bright spots in rural Wisconsin. A few miles outside of town, I saw a factory farm with several thousand cows crammed into enormous confinement barns. The stench was overwhelming.

I turned onto Volenec’s road, passing St. John Nepomuc, the Catholic church that the Volenec family has been attending for three generations. Charles Volenec, Jerry’s father, had told me that the congregation was dwindling and that his grandson, who graduated from high school this year, was the church’s only altar boy. The road was lined with cornfields.

In his office, Jerry told me he had written a poem after Sonny Perdue’s talk in Madison. He called it a commentary on “Get big or get out”:

I was told to buy a shovel
So I bought a shovel
I was told to dig
So I dug
What is the hole for I asked
For your neighbor, he has passed
I was told to keep digging
So I put my shovel to the task
A hole for each neighbor
Until I was the last
Keep digging I was told
I looked around and asked
Who for?
For yourself I was told
You are needed no more.

Volenec told me that he’s grateful to Trump for his political awakening. “I may as well have been asleep before 2016,” he said. “Without Trump’s arrogance, the way he behaves, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention. Provided that he doesn’t drive this country into the ground before he’s replaced, I think he’s woken up a lot of people.”

Volenec has recently found a renewed determination to help save family farms. He has become more active with his co-op and with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. And he has begun connecting with like-minded farmers across the country. “I started out fighting for my own well-being, my own survival,” he said. “It’s evolving for me. I want to be on the right side of what’s coming next.”

His current mood reminded him of an unruly cow that once wandered off his farm. “I was on a four-wheeler and was trying to round her up,” he said. “I chased her round and round. Then she got tired of me chasing her and she stopped, turned, and she was going to fight. She was too tired to run, but she was going to use what she had left. She was challenging me—she was going to fight. I guess that’s where I’m at. I’m running my ass off, I’m tired, and I don’t have the energy to run anymore. But, by God, I’ve got enough in me to stand here and fight.”

Video Of Pile-Up On Highway 39, Waushara County

Let us be clear about why this mass crash took place.

For decades this stretch of farmland in Waushara County and near Portage County has been allowed to be misused by the owner.  When one drives through this section of the two counties on Highway 39 it is clear that the fields are stark.  ‘No trees’ will be the first thing that comes to your mind.

The trees were cut down when I was a boy—and though I am still a boy at heart—-that was over 40-plus years ago. Soon thereafter the fields started to blow away.  They planted windbreaks and it helped.  They then removed them, too.  It’s so stupid, and awful, that the windbreaks have all been taken out for a few more inches of farmland.

And this video is the result.

Why local authorities do not cite the large corporate farmer for the damage that is done to the land, and in this case below to nearly 30 vehicles, remains stunning for rational folks to ponder.

 

Massive Pile-Up On Both Lanes Of Hwy. 39, Waushara County

Huge pile-ups are reported in both the north and south lanes of Highway 39 on the border of Waushara and Portage County.  It took place a short time ago. Complete blackout from the dirt being blown over the major highway.   This has long been a problem as large farm operations have not been forced to plant tree rows and take other corrective measures to stem this problem—which has been happening for decades.  Photos from Beth Juris.

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Wisconsin Residents Can Not Feel Good About Senate Action Over Brad Pfaff

Partisanship took another nasty leap forward on Tuesday when the Wisconsin State Senate voted to deny Brad Pfaff’s nomination to head the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.  There would be no story here if there was a legal or ethical claim as to why the nomination should not have been approved.

But there was nothing more than a partisan snit over how agricultural and health issues had been dealt with by Pfaff over the past months.  To bring such base motives to the floor when a governor asks for the cabinet of his choice is a very sad chapter in our state.

There are plenty of places for political clashes to occur, and legitimately so.  But to have a spectacle of this type play out in the statehouse over a cabinet nomination was unseemly.

One of the salient points Pfaff made earlier this year was a need to pay more attention to farmers who feel suicidal.  He merely pushed back in public when the GOP tried to delay funding for a farmer suicide prevention program.  Anyone who has grown up in rural Wisconsin, where agricultural economics are often unsettling, understands why such funds are much needed.  That Republicans would retaliate for such concerns over mental health issues is simply outrageous.

People around the state, who follow the news but are not overly mindful of the politics of this story, need to be reminded that Pfaff was nominated in January.  During this process, he was supported by all trade associations and also by all those Republicans sitting on an oversight committee in February.

And then today on the Senate floor the vote fell along party lines.  Each of the 19 Republicans voted against Pfaff, while all 14 Democrats voted for him.  How the five Republican senators were united in supporting Pfaff in committee, but rejected him on the floor, is why there is much to feel lousy about following this vote.  Governing in our state is in serious trouble. According to the Legislature’s nonpartisan research office, the state Senate hasn’t fired a member of a governor’s Cabinet since at least 1987.

Fair play is how most Wisconsinites conduct themselves.  Our civics classes helped us to reason why the Executive should be allowed to fill a cabinet with the choices best suited for the needs of the time.  Unless there is a strong reason such as criminal behavior, ethical lapses, or moral impairments a governor should have the cabinet selections of their choosing.

Qualifications for the job, passion for farmers, and skills based on experience all would seem to be the desire for any legislature when selecting a person to lead this part of our state government.  Pfaff’s resume had everything anyone could wish for but was rejected for purely partisan reasoning.

There will be those within the GOP ranks who will spin this vote in an attempt to demonstrate why such an outcome was required on the Senate floor.  But for those in rural Wisconsin, who still feel a handshake and their word are as good as a contract,  will feel a sense of sadness about the way governing has broken down in our state.

Why Senator Ron Johnson Is Wrong About Farm Bill

There was a great deal of news this week which seemed to push many stories, that should be known about, lower on the pile.  One of those neglected articles was the lame excuse that Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson gave for voting against the farm bill.

Johnson used as his rationale that nearly 80 percent, roughly $682 billion, of the spending in the bill was directed to SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program.  In the rarefied air that Johnson breathes it must be nice to look down and give a bottom line perspective on life.

But if Johnson were to walk Main Street and talk with people he might be better able to see the reason SNAP is a program so much in use.  Never mind that it aids farmers tremendously, too.

The reason that so many people qualify for SNAP in a low unemployment economy is that his rich friends at Americans for Prosperity along with the hucksters at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce keep wages low and the minimum wage at $7.25.  That low wage is a crime!  There is no way that it is a living wage.

But while the low paid workers are being punched by Johnson he is more than happy to slap and smile at the biggest suckers at the welfare teat in the farm bill.  It might be interesting for everyone to know that in the bill is the corporate welfare lips of Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and the rest of the ilk who are chortling as they know their benefits are not income tested.  The factory farms which they own and which destroy drinking water, streams, and lakes will continue with Johnson’s blessings

Meanwhile we spend public money to stock lakes and streams with fish and improve habitat in our rural areas knowing that one person with a manure spreader can kill  years of needed investments.  It is galling to know what Johnson supports.

While Johnson is prattling on about SNAP and the need to save precious taxpayer dollars he is doubtlessly applauding the corporate welfare give-a-way Scott Walker provided to Kimberly Clark to keep an already profitable plant open at a time of record profits.  Folks need to know, also, that company pays NO Wisconsin income tax.

But the ones who face the scorn and ridicule from Johnson are those nasty people who just want food on the table at meal time.

And so it goes.

Wisconsin Voters Wary Of Trump’s Tariffs, Need Facts Going Forward

Polls from all sources over the past months have underscored the dread, and even alarm that voters are feeling about tariffs.  The tariffs that the Trump White House have placed on a number of products ranging across many countries have not only made headlines, but for some companies created shaky bottom lines.  As an example in Wisconsin, Trek Bicycle Corp. says it would pay an additional $30 million in tariffs each year on bikes imported from China.

Wisconsin farmers face much uncertainty about their future prices and markets.  This week World Dairy Expo will be held in Madison where trade and tariffs will be on the minds of many participants. 

Unlike past years, when just the smallest farms, with herds of 50 or fewer cows, were closing, some big farms with herds of more than 300 cows are also succumbing to the pressures of building debt with little equity, Basse said. “It all depends upon how many years you can endure negative margins,” he said.  (Dan Basse, an economist and founder of Chicago-based AgResource Company forecasts domestic and world agricultural price trends.)

Basse’s short- and long-term outlooks aren’t optimistic, partly because he believes China has the upper hand in its trade war with the U.S., and that will continue to limit demand. “We need to get that Chinese market open for U.S. dairy products if we’re going to see an end to this whole thing. The way the administration is negotiating, we have no idea when that’ll happen,” he said.

Wisconsin, like many rust belt states which felt the economic punch from the recession harder than most of the nation, is concerned about the threat of a trade war.  A Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics Poll found that a plurality of voters in the Badger State, which voted for Trump in 2016 like the others polled, have misgivings about our trade policy.

It is true that free trade and tariffs have been boiled into our political stew.  It once was a truism that Republican voters were far more supportive of free trade than Democrats.  That now has been up-ended with the reverse at play in our state. (I have been a decades long advocate of free trade.) The National Republican Party used to stand four-square for free trade, but not anymore.  Trump has put his fingerprint over the long-held one of the GOP.  With the power he wields over his base polls show pro-Trump voters view free trade negatively, and tariffs as a positive move.

The reason tariffs are now being mis-used as a policy is based on the wrong perceptions the general public has about free trade.  Trump was able to play into those views, and use the economic unease people were feeling from the last recession, to help him win the presidency in 2016.

There is a broad perception that free trade is a boondoggle aimed at undermining the jobs and economic security of a segment of this state. What is troubling is that so many state residents turn aside when facts are presented about why free trade matters.  In my files is the strong editorial from the Wisconsin State Journal  dated January 2017.  The words are still clear-headed.  Reading it again shows the folly of those who wish to undermine free trade and erect foolish tariffs which will lead to a needless and dangerous trade war.

America enjoys a trade surplus with Mexico on services. And as U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, has pointed out, the U.S. has had a trade surplus in manufacturing, agriculture and services with all 20 countries it has bilateral trade agreements with. That includes Mexico, whose growing middle class wants to buy more of our products.

Both nations win when trade is done right.

Top imports into Wisconsin include clothes, shoes, bicycles and padlocks, according to Census data. Wisconsin’s top exports include aircraft and motor vehicle parts, computer and diagnostic machines, outboard engines and excavators.

In other words, we tend to produce more sophisticated stuff, so our exports provide more family-sustaining jobs here. And about 40 percent of the parts in a typical Mexican product sent to America originated in America, according to the Department of Commerce.

But it takes political leaders to step up as educators on the topic of trade and turn back the many falsehoods.  The fear and angst from workers is not something to dismiss.  We witnessed in 2016 what happens when economic unease mixes with a shameless demagogue.  Therefore, it is a must that today’s leaders–or would-be leaders–anchor themselves to facts and use them to educate voters about the issues so central to our national discussions.

For instance, it needs to be stressed that automation is a bigger factor than trade deals in changing how people work and what jobs are available.  And that trend is not slowing, but will only pick up speed.  We need to adapt workers to the changing landscape of the working world–and not use old and out-dated arguments for political purposes.

Micahael Hicks is the Director of Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research and spoke to In Business about the facts in which the trade issue needs to be viewed if we are going to have insight of what needs fixing.  The interview comes from 2017.

Hicks: No, I think a more nuanced approach to it is necessary. Absolutely, trade and competition with other firms, be they in Illinois or Mexico, or Maine, or China, can cause firms to close down. Those tend to be very concentrated. If you’re in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, or Ohio, we’ve seen now four or five decades of job losses in manufacturing in concentrated places. And so that looks a lot like trade, but the fact is that the United States today is producing more goods, more manufactured goods, than at any other time in its history.

In Wisconsin, the peak-manufacturing year is 2015, and we know for sure it was 2015 or 2016 in Indiana, probably 2016 when the data comes in, so free trade is not causing a reduction in U.S. manufacturing production. If we actually had less production, maybe that would be a major cause of worry, but we’re actually making more today than we ever have before, so it surely cannot be trade.

If all else fails let Wisconsin residents know that with a trade war comes higher price for beer. Trump’s tariff on aluminum imports will add cost to the beer that’s sold here in aluminum cans.

Now that we have the attention of the voters….

Wisconsin Trade War Woes Reported On Front Page Of National Newspaper

The continuing fall-out from the trade wars started by Donald Trump made the front page of the top business newspaper in the nation.  And it was reported from Wisconsin.

MENOMONIE, Wis.—After the U.S. placed tariffs on European steel and aluminum in June, Europe hit back with a tax that, among other things, made American kidney beans 25% more expensive in Europe.

Now, Cindy Brown is running out of room to store the beans. One-ton bags of them cover the floors in her cavernous warehouses. Smaller sacks are piled on wood-pallet shelves. Kidney beans fill tall steel bins that dot the grounds.

Chippewa Valley Bean Co. had been on track to ship to Europe 60% of its beans traded internationally this year, worth $25 million. Now, “we’re just sitting on our hands,” said Ms. Brown, president of the family company.

Ms. Brown’s ancestors arrived in northwest Wisconsin by covered wagon 160 years ago, building a house and planting crops on 80 acres north of the Chippewa River. In 1969 her father, Russell Doane, planted his first crop of dark red kidney beans. Though he also raised beef and dairy cattle and grew corn, the kidney beans proved well-suited to the area’s sandy soils. He found ready buyers, and four years later launched Chippewa Valley Bean Co. to clean and market his beans and others grown by neighbors.

Chippewa Valley handles one in four dark red kidney beans traded internationally, according to Randy Fairman, an agricultural consultant who specializes in dry beans.

“If the tariffs hold, the near-term impact will be devastating to small businesses both in the U.S. and the EU,” Mr. Fairman said. “There is no place in the supply chain where a 25% tariff could be absorbed.”