Darian Acres cows

Cows are seen at Darian Acres dairy farm in Rio, Wis., on Dec. 18, 2020. Advocates for small and medium-sized dairy farms argue Congress should help them by enacting a national supply management program to increase farm revenue, stabilize milk prices and reduce oversupply.

Dairy farmers and farmer advocates say Wisconsin can’t solve its mental health crisis among farmers without addressing the “systemic” financial issues they face.

“Throwing money at farmer mental health isn't going to help if we don't work on the systemic issues that are at the root of this whole situation,” said Danielle Endvick, communications director of Wisconsin Farmers Union, which advocates on behalf of family farmers and rural communities. 

Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, said re-evaluating federal farm policy should be “number one” when working to address farmer mental health.

“I think it’s going to take an act of Congress to turn things around,” Von Ruden said.

They and numerous other advocates for small dairy farmers propose a national supply management program for milk to limit overproduction and raise and stabilize prices. 

In a recent survey, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection found 70% of dairy farmers cited balancing milk supply and demand as one of the biggest challenges to the future of their operations.

In 2019, Wisconsin Farmers Union commissioned two dairy economists — the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mark Stephenson and Cornell University’s Charles Nicholson — to study how the program would play out had it been implemented in the 2014 Farm Bill. 

The study examined two types of supply management programs that would reward farmers who stay within targeted production limits and penalize those who exceed it.

The economists found that if such a program had been implemented in 2014, it would have reduced volatility in milk prices; increased the average milk prices farmers received; increased net farm operating income for farms of all sizes; decreased average annual milk production in the United States; and decreased government expenditures in the form of subsidies.

The system would have also kept hundreds of farms in business, the study found, and the program would have cost the federal government nothing, said Stephenson, director of the UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Profitability.

But large farms would fiercely oppose a supply management program. Stephenson said large producers would come out “guns-a-blazing” against such a plan.

The Dairy Business Association, a nonprofit based in Green Bay that represents large dairy producers, did not respond to three requests for an interview for this story. Stephenson said small and large farms must agree on a supply management program to get it through Congress.

Endvick said the effort to improve farmer mental health will be limited until the nation solves the “deep financial problems and poor policy that's been in place for decades that is really putting farmers into this financial pinch.”

Reporting for this story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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