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As Century Ends, Farming Changes, But Family Dairy Farms Remain The Foundation In Wisconsin

Fifty percent or more of Wisconsin farmers now own computers, receive most of their household income from off-farm jobs, and favor restricting development on agricultural lands, according to a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study.

These are among the results from a survey returned by 1,407 Wisconsin farmers during spring 1999. The 1999 Wisconsin Farm Poll – conducted by researchers in the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences – provides a snapshot of farms and farmers as the century ends.

“Compared with many states, Wisconsin still has a large number of mid-sized traditional family farms,” says Douglas Jackson-Smith, PATS co-director. “These are commercial-scale farms with gross sales over $20,000 that are owned, managed and worked by members of the farm household.”

The 1999 Wisconsin Farm Poll goes beyond information contained in the 1997 U.S. Census of Agriculture. The census results painted a sobering picture: Wisconsin lost almost 13 percent of its farms between 1987 and 1997. The decline was particularly severe for mid-sized commercial livestock farms; the number of hog farms decreased by 60 percent and dairy farms by 40 percent.

To better understand Wisconsin farm life, PATS researchers asked farmers about the involvement of both the farm operator and spouse in off-farm as well as farming activities, about the use of different agricultural technologies and management practices, and about how they view public policy issues.

Although farmers are frustrated by high production costs and low commodity prices, the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin farm operators reported they were somewhat or very satisfied with their family”s quality of life, according to Jackson-Smith.

The original survey sample of 3,200 farms was weighted to reflect the proportion of different types of farms in Wisconsin. Dairy farms made up roughly 41 percent of farms in the sample. Additional farm types included cattle and hog operations (19 percent), cash grain farms (17 percent) and a group of other farms including many part-time farms as well as a few large commercial fruit or vegetable operations (23 percent).

Most Wisconsin farms are diversified crop/livestock operations. The average Wisconsin farm in the survey operated roughly 250 acres in 1998, although dairy and cash grain operations farmed more land than cattle, hog or other types of farms.

Dairy farming generates more gross farm sales than other types of farms. Roughly two-thirds of all dairy farms had gross sales over $100,000 in 1998. At the same time, almost half the cash grain farms and more than two-thirds of the other farms had gross sales under $20,000.

“Overall, dairy farming is the major type of farming where a significant portion of farm families support themselves mainly from farm income,” Jackson-Smith says.

As of 1999, few Wisconsin farms are operated as non-farm partnerships or corporations, and contract production of livestock or crops is relatively rare. There are an increasing number of formal farm partnerships and corporations in the state — roughly 22 percent of the sample — although most are owned and managed by family members. Two-thirds of farms in the sample rely completely on family members for farm labor.

Wisconsin farmers strongly support an agricultural system dominated by family farms. About 90 percent of respondents said family-owned farms are important for the future of rural Wisconsin; nearly two-thirds felt the rise of hired-labor farms might have undesirable consequences for the state. Yet more than one-fourth of the farmers agreed that large-scale dairy farms are inevitable in the state.

Dairy farms differed from other types of farms in the study in many ways.

The average age of farm operators was more than 51 years old, although dairy farmers averaged only 47 years old.

Dairy farms were more highly leveraged than their non-dairy farm neighbors. Although most non-dairy farms reported having no debt, more than 60 percent of dairy farms had debts that exceeded 10 percent of their assets.

Dairy farms were more likely to have at least some regular non-family laborers helping out, while the family was less likely to work off the farm.

“The survival of most farms has come to depend as much on the availability and quality of off-farm employment opportunities as it does on the general agricultural economy,” Jackson-Smith says. Fifty-five percent of Wisconsin farm households get at least half their household income from off-farm sources.

On 44 percent of farms in the sample, the farm operator was working at a regular off-farm job; the spouse was working a job on almost half of all farms. Almost two-thirds of the farms had either or both the operator and spouse working off the farm.

About one-third of respondents said they were on the verge of quitting farming or were unlikely to continue farming for another 5 years. However, more than half the farmers in the sample said they were likely to stay in business indefinitely. Most who expected to stay in business indefinitely said they could do so because they had enough off-farm income to help keep their family afloat. Almost twice as many dairy farmers as non-dairy farmers expected to farm indefinitely because their farm was providing sufficient income for their households.

Wisconsin farms differ greatly in their use of technologies. Less than half the farms in the survey use the latest information-based and biotechnology-based agricultural technologies.

Computer use continues to increase among Wisconsin farm operators. Although half of all farms now have a computer, less than one-third use a computer for managing farm records and less than 20 percent use one to access farm information on the internet.

Between 13 and 15 percent of farmers report planting genetically modified crops in 1998. Cash grain farms were the most likely to use the new technology. Roughly one-third of them planted either Bt-corn or herbicide-tolerant varieties of corn or soybeans that year.

Less than 4 percent of respondents currently use precision agriculture, although another 6 percent plan to adopt some form of the new farming practice during the next 5 years.

Fifty to 60 percent of the farmers felt that government policies were the primary cause of low farm income in recent years. However, nearly one-quarter of respondents agreed that a phaseout of most federal farm programs would make it easier for them to improve their income.

Almost 40 percent of respondents viewed mergers among farm input suppliers negatively, three times the percentage that viewed mergers as positive. In fact it was one area where farmers wanted to see more government action. Most farmers felt the government should be more involved in preventing consolidation in the farm supply industry.

Farmers in the sample widely support some restrictions on non-farm development on agricultural lands. More than 60 percent agreed that local government should restrict development on agricultural lands and that the state Farmland Preservation Program should be strengthened to control urban sprawl. Nearly half agreed that there should be statewide zoning to protect farmland and 46 percent agreed that farmers would need to accept restrictions on developing their land. Dairy farmers were the most supportive of restrictions on non-farm development.

“Farmers are increasingly concerned about conflicts between farmers and their non-farm neighbors,” Jackson-Smith says. “Yet many farmers are torn between their desire to protect agricultural lands and their desire to sell their farmland at high development prices if they decide to stop farming.”

For a copy of the complete study, “Farming in Wisconsin at the End of the Century: Results of the 1999 Wisconsin Farm Poll,” go here or contact Nancy Carlisle at (608) 265-2908,

The research was supported by state funding to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.