Author:Conniff, Ruth
Position:MIDDLE AMERICA - The declining family-run farms and the political divide in rural areas - Column

Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer in Wonewoc, Wisconsin, sold his cows in June.

"Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide," Goodman wrote in a Washington Post piece about his wrenching decision to stop milking on the dairy farm his family has run for more than a century.

The last few years have been full of grim news in the rolling green hills of Americas Dairyland, where low milk prices and competition from bigger and bigger dairies are putting an average of two family farms out of business each day.

"For my wife and me, having to sell our herd is a sign of the economic death not just of rural America, but also of a way of life," Goodman added.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis recently released a report on the eighty-four farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota that filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy in 2018. (That's a small portion of the farms that have gone out of business, since Chapter 12 is a relatively obscure process.) The number of such bankruptcies had more than doubled from four years earlier. About 60 percent of those ill-fated farms were in Wisconsin, still called "Americas Dairyland" on state license plates, despite the fact that California surpassed Wisconsin as the nation's top milk producer in 1993.

The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram notes a key difference between Wisconsin and California: "The average dairy herd in Wisconsin is 153 cows, compared with 1,300 in California."

Across the country, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are taking over as family farms bite the dust.

"It's a lot noisier," Jim Goodman told me when we spoke on the phone. "It's just big machines roaring--not what you think of in the countryside." Goodman knew all forty-five of his cows by name. On CAFOs, with many hundreds of cows, "You don't really know them. You just see their rear ends."

There's more at stake here than the idyllic milk-carton picture of red barns and happy, grazing cows. The consolidation of our food supply should worry everyone. As Goodman points out, "The whole model is so dependent on a few things: cheap labor, intensive chemical use, and manure being heavily spread."

In fact, as a handful of massive corporate farms manage more and more of our food supply, everyone is vulnerable to the ill effects.

"If something goes wrong, the whole food system could crash, and there wouldn't be much left," says Rebecca Goodman, who is married to Jim. "It's a food...

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