Saving the Family Farm: A Look at Large Dairy Farms and Why they Draw Controversy

Chances are, when you think of a traditional dairy farm, you picture a barn with maybe 60 to 100 cows inside. "They're not as economical as they used to be, you've really got to be efficient to run a farm that size," said Marathon County Extension Dairy Agent, Heather Schlesser. While there are efficient farms on the smaller scale, the reality is your traditional farms seem to be getting bigger.

Numbers from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board show a dramatic decline in the number of dairy farms over the decades, while production continues to grow. "When I talk to a lot of farmers they get into the debate, well, we're a family farm and they're a corporate farm and they say no, family farms are on the small scale because that's the tradition that they're used to, but, what we're finding is that you've got farms like Van Der Geest and Kings that are family farms, but they're on the larger scale," said Schlesser.

Van Der Geest Dairy Cattle, Inc. for instance is located on Highway A in Marathon County. According to its website, It was purchased more than 30 years ago by Gary and Mary Kay Van Der Geest. The farm was just 120 acres in size at that time and had a 17-cow wood stall barn. This four generation business now has 4,000 acres of cropland and 3,000 holstein dairy cattle.

These larger dairy farms, sometimes called mega dairies, can certainly be controversial. In Wood County, Wysocki farms wants to build a 12-square mile dairy facility in the Town of Saratoga, called Golden Sands Dairy. The facility hasn't even been built yet, but meetings discussing the plans have meant large turnouts and passionate debate. "Do my granddaughters want their grandchildren to be drinking water when they come visit grandpa that exceeds EPA limits? No! Absolutely not," said Bruce Dimick in an interview earlier this year. "Homeowners lose value in their houses. So, if we would even try to sell our home even now even when its just proposed, we would not be able to get out of it what it would on the market two years ago," said Sue Savage in an interview earlier this year.

Back in August, the Town of Saratoga appealed a judge's decision to give building permits to the dairy facility. Aside from the appeal, the project still faces several more hurdles before becoming a reality, like approval by the DNR.

I tried to contact Van Der Geest Dairy Cattle, Inc., and they didn't return my call. When I called Wysocki Dairy Farms, I was referred to the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau for comment.

Some local dairy farmers have concerns of their own about these big farms. Michael Hamm of Waupaca County is one of them. He has a small farm with 65 cows and 50 calves. He said, "We have large corporations snapping up land and adding on and adding on and we even have our government giving these people money to get larger and larger and larger and pushes small farms out of the spectrum all together."

But, other farmers say the bottom line is that we need farms of all sizes to work together to feed our country. Marathon County dairy farmer Ryan Prahl said , "You're not going to do it with 30 cows farms, you're not going to do it all with 1,000 cow farms," His mom, Mary Jo added, "because there's fields and places that those places need to be too. I think we need all of them, our choice to run it at this size doesn't make us any better than the guy that runs at 30 or the guy that runs at 3,000... and I think each of them has their things to offer."

But, with the reality of a higher production demand for an ever-growing population, Wisconsin will likely continue to see larger, more efficient farms. Mary Jo Prahl said, "It's scary that what's going to happen with agriculture, but we've got the technology and the ability right now to produce enough food for the people in the world, the way that it is."

Coming up Wednesday and NewsChannel 7 at 5, we'll look into the struggles that exist passing on the family farm from one generation to the next.

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