A New Vision for Agriculture in Marathon County

In a recent editorial the Record Review brought up a host of issues surrounding the NTC Agricultural Center for Excellence. While the editorial focused on the school’s limited outcomes due to the model it presents the critique ultimately went to the heart of the matter: the rapid consolidation of the dairy industry and the death of our wonderful family farming legacy in Marathon County. The editorial cited the rapid loss of family farms over the last two years and logically and horrifically projected a county 15 years in the future that is farmed by 10 to 15 factory farms. The editorial again focused me on an issue that I have grappled with my entire adult life but also inspired me to think again about what could be.

NTC’s Agricultural Center for Excellence is a symptom of the emerging dominance of factory farms. The school was set up with little attention to the economic and social impacts of agricultural consolidation and presents students, farmers and the community an image of the farmer as someone who owns a $700,000 forage harvester. This image cannot be paid for by a 50 cow dairy on $15 per hundredweight milk. NTC’s Agricultural Center has been incredibly slow to focus on rotational grazing and does so now in a token manner at best with most of the grazing fences surrounding row crops and the “grazing herd” being managed on a tiny adjacent pasture. At a time when the grazing model is one of the only available to new or undercapitalized farmers the Center places far too much emphasis on the idea of “Diary Diversity” (both big and small farms), a concept invented by promoters of factory farms to distract from their emerging domination, and an economic model unfit for people without millions to invest. Big Farms eat small farms for breakfast; in terms of their access to capital and ability to leverage credit, in terms of their ability to control land, and in terms of their relationship to commodity and input markets and their ability to leverage volume discounts that the little guys end up subsidizing at the retail rate. The dairy school is too worried about ruffling the feathers of those who benefit from consolidation to look at the long term alternatives that might best benefit our region. Quite honestly we believe farmers with 2,000 animals in confinement do not need a new training center that serves them because they are served by, and a product of, the dominant system that has bled family farmers and gutted rural communities. That is not to say somehow these farms are owned by bad people but rather our focus, like in any public sector program, should not be to serve those who have the most or serve a model that quite honestly is not open to most or even a few young farmers.

What is lost with consolidation is not only that proud sense of history that family farmers and so many in our county feel, but also a more environmentally sustainable system, more egalitarian communities, and an economic democracy where many have an independent stake and more meaningful control over their lives. What is lost with agricultural consolidation and disappearing family farms is the agricultural American Dream.

With those values in mind, I want to propose a possible and more hopeful direction for the future of Marathon County Agriculture. The trends of rotational grazing and localized food systems are flourishing and growing.  Both systems are based upon the legacy, stewardship and democracy of family farming.

 Let us begin with what we know and what we have, a lot of great family farms. Of the 641 dairy farms in Marathon County over 150 and growing are grass based in which farmers rotationally graze their animals. We need to showcase the unique capacity for sustainable production our own region holds. Terroir is the French word meaning “the flavor of place”. Many items known the world over hail from a very specific region; Champagne, Vidalia onions etc. I’ve been daydreaming lately of what could be Marathon County’s Terroir: grass based dairy products. Marathon County has always had a ton of diary capacity, but in the last 10 years we’ve seen the awakening of what has been know as the grazing movement. If pursued Marathon County could be know the world over for its grass based dairy products. There are so many wins: a better market for our county’s grazing dairies and the preservation of our family farms, the environmental benefits of mitigated phosphorus run-off, carbon sequestration, and dramatic reduction of soil erosion. The economic benefits could be a bedrock for the county for years to come. This type of agriculture could last 1000 years. The obstacles involve these farmers coming together to forage this identity and cooperatively and aggressively sell this concept to the world. It would take a dedicated and connected core of farmers and promoters.

Closer to home, we are motivated by a local and organic food movement, a deeper economy, by the bigger picture of a just, sustainable, and democratic food system. It turns out that this movement has lots of economic development potential, and not just any potential, but an economy that takes the high road and is better all around for people involved in it and the land upon which it is based. Demand for local food is far outstripping supply nationally as well as locally in North Central Wisconsin, there are many niches to be filled and a lot of market left to be cultivated.

Since the economic downturn, local and organic food has been almost unfazed by the broader great recession. In 2008 the United States Department of Agriculture estimated local food sales to be $4.8 billion nationally. Last year they topped $7 billion with no end in sight. This isn’t just farmers markets which have been booming, more and more restaurants are featuring it on their menus, grocery stores are sourcing locally and carving out sections of their stores with local labels and food miles information.  Even wholesale distributors like Rinhart and Sysco, recognizing explosive growth, have created local food options for regional supply. The Wisconsin Farmers’ Union which started the great farmer co-ops of the 20s and 30s like CENEX has recently invested its capitol in another great cooperative venture: The Wisconsin Food Hub, which aggregates local food and distributes it to local outlets.

Beyond sales of vegetables and meat, local processing is making a comeback. At this past year’s Organic Farming Conference we learned about local meat curing efforts, local organic breakfast cereal production, and small scale frozen sweet corn. On our own farm we’ve considered raising wheat for local flour, raising sunflowers for local organic oil, freezing fruit for a Wausau Winter Market, and we’ve always been proponents of raw milk, not simply for raw milk itself, but as the basis for the renewal of the local creamery.  There are so many options! Any microfood enterprise that can be imagined can be realized on a small scale locally.

In an era of globalization where whole local economies are being scrapped, thinking local first and buying from our neighbors is not only necessary to sustain our communities, it allows us to realize our capacity, harness our power and creates a vital interdependence that is one of the most satisfying parts of life. Of all the great statistics that are emerging about the explosion of local and organic food the one that is most exciting is what we have yet to realize. Last year Marathon County spent around $250,000,000 on groceries. If just 10% is captured, that is $25 million dollars that stays in our community. That’s around 200 more family farms of our type making an honest living in Marathon county. That’s $25 million for our schools, our civil society, our churches, our continued investment in ourselves. If anyone else feels this way, we want to know, and we want to build this future with you standing on our county’s proud legacy of family farming.

Tony Schultz owns and operates Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, WI