A LOVE AND A LEGACY
How small dairy farms persist despite challenges
by Nicole Herzog
Stashed away in a quaint barn on Hinchley’s Dairy Farm, Tina Hinchley collects dozens of maps. From national maps to ones that solely feature the state of Wisconsin, each colorful diagram is littered with markings. Notes in black Sharpie point to the hometowns of the hundreds of people who have traveled from all over the country to visit this family-owned dairy farm in Cambridge.
The number of markings becomes noticeably smaller after 2020. Like most of the population, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Hinchley family to rethink the operations of their business, located about 25 minutes east of downtown Madison.
“When COVID hit, all of that stopped, just like with everybody else,” Hinchley says. “It’s kind of scary not being able to pay your bills and not knowing what COVID was going to bring with having no school reservations and everybody isolated.”
COVID-19 is just the latest in a series of challenges to Wisconsin’s dairy industry, once the state’s lifeblood but now threatened by worker shortages and high production costs. To make ends meet, the current generation of dairy farmers is consistently updating technology and diversifying their services to keep small farms alive for future generations.
Changes to the industry
The inability to host farm tours is not the only issue that has affected dairy farms in recent years. For farms of all sizes, other factors, such as a widespread labor shortage and the overall cost of dairy production, causes challenges for farmers, according to Mark Stephenson, the director of dairy policy analysis within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW–Madison.
When her husband began farming in the 1980s, milk was priced at $18 per 100 weight (or 11.6 gallons of milk), Hinchley says. In 2020, the Hinchleys’ milk was priced at $9.40 — or half the price for the same amount of milk. With milk prices so high, Hinchley says the family had to dispose of 25% of their milk during the pandemic.
“During COVID, schools were not drinking milk,” Hinchley says. “The restaurants closed, so you couldn’t just ship all of your milk to the processing plants because they can’t just dump it in the sewer. So at that time, it was very, very stressful on all of us because, you know, we’ve got all these cows. They’re producing all this milk. Eventually, what we ended up doing is selling some cows, because it’s just heart-wrenching to see your hard work go down the drain.”
In regards to the labor shortage, many larger-sized farms have dealt with a great loss of employees, Stephenson says. Among smaller farms, the challenge of workers leaving to pursue careers in other industries in addition to fewer people living in rural communities also poses a significant challenge to the dairy industry, according to Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.
Hinchley says their family has tried to instill in their daughter a desire to pursue dairy farming while also keeping their technology updated. For instance, the family now uses robotic milking machines, which automatically milk dairy cattle without using human labor, and rumination collars, which monitor cow health through sensors.
Their daughter recently graduated from UW–Madison with a degree in dairy science, which has played a role in improving the conditions and technological aspects of their farm. She now serves as the sixth-generation dairy farmer in the family.
“If you’re a family farm and you want your kids to stay, you have to keep going on and progressing forward,” Hinchley says. “You have to get the new equipment, and you have to stay up to date on the technology. If you don’t do that, there’s nothing really for your kids to come to. And as it is right now, the margins for farming are very, very tight.”
Yet despite the fact that many small dairy farms have shut down due to these challenges, milk production in Wisconsin is higher than ever. This is due to a larger trend of consolidation in the dairy industry, in which larger farms acquire the land of smaller farms that can no longer sustain themselves, Stephenson says.
“The United States had close to 3.5 million dairy farmers back in the 1930s,” Stephenson says. “And today we’ve got less than 30,000. So that consolidation is just a continuous strong trend. But our farms are getting bigger. We’re producing more milk than we ever have.”
According to Stephenson, while consolidation may cause controversy among small farmers, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of the overall success of the industry and the economy.
“The truth of the matter is that there are economies of scale in dairy farming,” Stephenson says. “So if you can become bigger, you can buy your inputs at a lower cost. You can achieve a lot more efficiency.”
The fact that Wisconsin is home to both large and small dairy farms is a reason why the dairy industry has been so successful in the state, according to Mayer.
“Wisconsin has remained a major world player and where the world turns to for dairy because we have such a diversity of dairy farms and we still have a critical mass of different types of dairy farms,” Mayer says. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not challenging.”
Mayer, who also runs a smaller-sized dairy farm in southeast Wisconsin, says she sees the abundance of large dairy farms in the state as an opportunity to increase the quality of her dairy products.
“I look at it with a collaborative spirit,” Mayer says. “As long as I have larger dairy farms in my area, there may be competition for some resources, but as long as there’s larger dairy farms in the area, there’ll still be a milk truck that’s in my area that’s willing to pick up my milk. There will still be a dairy nutritionist — the best, not just any dairy nutritionist — but a really good one because there’s other farms likely that are bigger than mine so that I don’t have to compromise just because we run a more boutique dairy. I don’t have to give up anything for that either. That quality is quality regardless of size.”
Striving to continue
Hinchley says the passion and love for both their animals and consumers allow them to keep their farm going, despite the significant challenges they have faced.
“It’s the passion that we have for these animals, and it’s the love of dairy,” Hinchley says. “Knowing that what we’re doing makes a difference to be able to provide healthy, nutritious milk to families is almost life and it’s living our dreams.”
To keep their business alive, the Hinchleys have started to diversify their products by growing crops such as corn and soybeans. They also began pasteurizing their own milk during the pandemic.
“Even though our milk price was down and we had to dispose of 25% of our milk during COVID, it did come back. Consumers showed us that they love dairy,” Hinchley says. “It’s just so exciting to know that the consumers find dairy as a comfort food.”
Hinchley also says they are slowly regaining visitors to their farm, as they have scheduled more family tours and school trip visits for the fall.
In some ways, the closures of other small farms in the area have also allowed their family’s farm to succeed. When nearby farms closed down, the Hinchleys were able to purchase and acquire their land.
Mayer says the ability to be creative and think of new ways to diversify their farm is a way they keep their smaller-sized farm going.
“I don’t think my greatest competition is a fellow dairy farmer. I think my greatest competition needs to be my own ability to be able to be nimble and flexible and creative and seek new ways of doing things,” Mayer says. “Our family focuses on doing the best that we can do, not being bigger than our neighbor, but being better than what we were the year before ourselves.”
Hinchley says she hopes to see smaller farms continue to persevere as they have worked hard to serve the state and future generations of farmers.
“It’s a love and a legacy,” Hinchley says. “Making sure that we’re doing the best job we can so that future generations can do better. Yet what we have made this for is not just for now, but it’s for people coming to see that farmers, we’re doing as much as we possibly can. Even though the margins are very tight, it’s really, really hard to fill.”
Featured photo by Perri Moran.