Wisconsin’s failing dairy industry means farmers may play vital role in midterms

Low milk prices, coupled with a milk surplus, have dairy farmers on edge.

Wisconsin is known for its idyllic rolling hills and bucolic countryside. The very picture of America’s heartland, it's home to most of the dairy farms in the country.

But underneath the surface, historically low milk prices, coupled with a milk surplus, have Wisconsin dairy farmers teetering on the edge, threatening families with bankruptcy and forcing them to give up farms they have run for generations.

Sarah Lloyd, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin Dells, said the western part of the state is leading the nation in claims of agricultural bankruptcy, also known as chapter 13.

"It feels pretty hopeless right now," Lloyd said.

Dairy farmers are not just an economic powerhouse in Wisconsin, contributing $43.4 billion to the state’s economy annually, they are also the backbone of many rural communities, making them a political powerhouse as well.

They’re a key voting bloc that helped deliver Trump the state in 2016, flipping Wisconsin from blue to red for the first time in 32 years. Wisconsin helped the president secure his electoral victory.

Which is why dairy farmers are a group of voters Republicans cannot lose in the upcoming midterms as polling shows Democrats are back on firm footing in Wisconsin.

In the past few days, politicians have been flooding the state to stump for various candidates. Last week in northwest Wisconsin, the president praised America’s dairy land: "I have to say this, because we have a lot of great farmers in this country, but I give Wisconsin a lot of credit for it."

At the same rally, Gov. Scott Walker praised Trump.

"He said, 'We will take care of the dairy farmers,' and unlike so many politicians in Washington in the past, this president never forgot his promise to the dairy farmers of the state of Wisconsin. He's making dairy great again in America, and it starts in Wisconsin!" Walker said.

It’s a message many in this area are desperate to hear. Wisconsin is losing one and a half dairy farms a day, and in Marathon County, 29 dairy farms have gone under in the past year.

"We need something to help the small family farms in the next couple months, otherwise we are going to see it crumble," dairy farmer Keith Kraeger said.

He described watching people he knows having to give up their farms as "getting hit in the stomach."

"You don’t want to see them leave, 'cause you don’t know if you’re gonna be next," he added. "I heard some farmers [are] getting suicide hotline numbers in their milk checks."

Dave Sedlacek, also a farmer, explained why some might contemplate suicide.

"If I have insurance on myself, I go out and commit suicide, the family gets the money," Sedlacek said. "That’s why some of these guys … are killing themselves so the family gets the insurance money to keep the farms running. It all goes back to that saying, 'You’re worth more dead than alive.'"

Some dairy farmers argue that the over-production of milk has created a surplus and led to plummeting prices. They say decreasing -- or managing -- the milk supply could help correct the cycle.

But in dire financial straits, the dairy industry has also been drawn into a political battle.

After months of stalled negotiations over NAFTA, Trump has announced a new proposed trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Canada will increase the amount of U.S. dairy products it imports.

But some farmers are skeptical how much it will really improve things.

"I don’t think it’s going to have much impact," dairy farmer Hans Breitenmoser said. "In my opinion, it's not going to make really a hill of beans worth a difference. I think it’s a band aid on a bullet hole."

"This is not what we wanted towards the Canadian farmer," Kraeger said. "I applaud President Trump for looking out … but this was not the approach."

"They have a system that is working for them," Kraeger continued, adding the U.S. should look at what Canada is doing well on the issue and incorporate it.

"I know President Trump he’s got to do his thing … to where I was hoping it was going to help the farmers, the farmers helped him get into the office,” Kraeger added. "It’s pretty disappointing right now.”

But as challenging as it has been recently, this is not a group that’s willing to give up easily. Their love of farming goes beyond work; it’s also a lifestyle for many, rooted in a history as old as this country.

Kraeger's wife, Julie, like many farmer’s spouses, has an "off-farm job" that helps pay the bills and gives the family health insurance.

"If there was enough income here, I wouldn't have to do that. I would prefer to stay home and take care and tend to everything that needed to be done here," Julie Kraeger explained. "But instead, this all kind of gets pushed aside … this is really where we should be."

Lloyd also knows this life well. She is another farmer’s wife who has an "off-farm" job. Her husband Nels and his parents have been farming for over 100 years. She helps to support her family farm and many others on the brink as an advocate for Wisconsin dairy farmers, working with Dairy Together, a part of the Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Union.

This summer, as the negative repercussions of the tariff battle became clear, Trump announced his own $12 billion farm bill to help alleviate the strain.

But for Lloyd, it may be too little, too late.

"For our 350-cow dairy, we think we would get about a one-time payment of $6,570," Lloyd said. "But we figure we are losing about $25,000 a month, so a one-time payment of $6,570 is not going to get us very far. It's certainly not going to pull anybody out from going off the edge of the cliff."

Like many farmers, Lloyd said she doesn’t want a hand out, just a hands up. Lloyd, Keith Kraeger and a group of dairy farmers from across the country took that message to Capitol Hill in September. They met with Democratic Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who is up for re-election this year.

After the meeting with lawmakers, Lloyd said she thinks her "voice was heard today, and that’s why I came to DC."

"This morning I felt nervous," Kraeger said. "Really, hats off to the representatives, and senators and congressmen that … had an ear to listen to us."

"It’s a good feeling to go back home and tell the rest of the farmers what the experience was," he added.

Baldwin is expected to retain her seat, but with a little over a week to go until midterms, other tight Wisconsin races are heating up.

Last Friday, during an impassioned gubernatorial debate between Gov. Walker and Democratic candidate Tony Evers, the topic of dairy farmers was raised.

Walker said that more people needed to eat cereal and cheese.

Evers echoed a position some dairy farmers have argued about over production.

"We have encouraged people to produce, now we are in a situation where we have an overabundance. We have to help them diversify," Evers said.

Back home in Lloyd’s district where incumbent Republican congressman Glenn Grothman leads in the polls, she said something big will have to change to save her farm.

"We are in a real crisis situation," Lloyd said. "We can't get a price that is going to cover our cost of production … with no end in sight, I don't know, we're just going to have to go further and further in debt."

Looming over the work at hand is the very real concern that one day, all of this could be gone. Still, Lloyd said she has hope.

"I read about how the farmers' union and some of these different organizations are starting to wake up and see the light, but we can’t [wait] too long. We gotta do it. You know there isn't much time, the time is running out," she said.