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Farmers move forward after unstable year

Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 7:24 PM CST
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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) - New data shows U.S. government payments made up about 40% of farmers’ income in 2020. Overall, it’s the best net income they’ve had in 7 years. But farmers say the past year has been a whirlwind of uncertainty that is not over yet.

A farming expert says 2020 was an outlier year for farming because of COVID-19 and Wisconsin’s shutdown. But farmers are now managing possible uncertainty in the future.

“There’s just so many what-ifs,” said James Juedes with a long sigh. Juedes owns and operates his family’s dairy farm in Marathon County.

Like many of the farmers he knows, he’s reeling from the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the shutdown.

“I think all the rules that have been in place for years and years and years are pretty much broken, and we’re starting over,” Juedes said. “We might get back to it, but it’s turning more into a day by day thing.”

He says government money given to farms of all sizes was invested right into keeping his farm afloat.

“When you give that money to a farmer, like me and my fellow people out there who do what I do, it is true stimulus money because it doesn’t go in the bank. We used that money... to pay bills, to buy things, to keep the economy going in the face of this,” he said. “It basically evened itself out, what we got in COVID payments and what we lost on how the markets got screwed up with pricing.”

Heather Schlesser, a dairy educator for UW-Extension in Wausau, says the year taught us how uncertain the market can be for farmers.

“Farmers are completely dependent on the product that they sell, and the product that they sell is dependent on what people are buying,” she said, explaining the importance of government payments. “If there is all of a sudden a flush of milk on the market and no consumers to buy it, then the milk prices are going to drop. And so that’s when those subsidy payments sort of coming in to help stabilize the prices that the farmers have.”

For Juedes, this means pivoting as once-lucrative restaurants shut down, many remaining unstable buyers almost a year later. Selling to grocery stores is proving more reliable, even with the initial supply-chain issues.

“Anyone selling to the foodservice industry, that market was pretty much dried up or gone. So they had to re-tool their businesses,” he explained.

Schlesser says some farmers are forward contracting for a set price instead of relying on the market.

“You can guarantee by that forward contract that you are going to make what you need to produce that milk. Where, if you don’t forward contract, you’re pretty much at the whim of that milk plant,” she said.

Other farmers she’s hearing from are deciding they can’t afford to put all their eggs in one basket.

“There are more farms that are looking at raising some hogs, some goats, some sheep, in order to do more products like that so they’re not solely relying on the price of milk,” she said, explaining that diversification can be a safety net when one market is unstable.

“We have to be vigilant in the short term, because of how fast things are changing. I know we’re used to dealing with Mother Nature, which is beyond our control. We make the best of it. But we like to be able to at least hang our hats on some other stuff,” Juedes said. “We’re a resilient bunch, and we’ll adjust on the fly like we always have.”

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