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Wisconsin agriculture is a big economic driver that could be in real danger

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - Wisconsin agriculture adds almost $105 billion dollars each year to our state's economy.

The dairy industry contributes nearly half of that, $45.6 billion, which DATCP says comes out to more than $82,000 dollars a minute.

All that money boosts other industries like manufacturing, veterinary care, and even construction. But Wisconsin lost 10% of its dairy farms in 2019 and that economic driver could be in danger of coming to a screeching halt.

"If we have 10 farmers and we're struggling to make payments to these people, and they (the farms) go out of business, that's no more revenue for those businesses. How is that going to affect our community?" That's a question Brad Sirianni is raising. He's a farm business and production management instructor at Western Technical College, and he works closely with farmers like Dan Anderson, who operates a dairy farm in Holmen.

Anderson owns one of the 58 herds left in La Crosse County. "There were 27 dairy farms up through here," said Anderson. "I'm the last one. And I'm one of five left in the Holmen School District."

Ag is an economic driver but it also provides jobs. Around 435,000 Wisconsin jobs, or just under 12%, are directly linked to agriculture.

That includes the work that Travis Thompson does. He owns the Hegg Mill which supplies feed for Dan Anderson's herd. "Ag is a huge part of a lot of things," explained Thompson. "A big percentage of the things in these small communities, and nationwide."

Thompson used to be a dairy farmer but got out when money got tight.
He knows firsthand that farms are the backbone of local economies, and if farms fail, those communities will suffer. "It's immense," he said. "It affects everybody. This business and Ag affect just about every avenue that everyone is getting employed in, in this area."

On the Anderson farm, Dan says it's a responsibility that is felt every day. "Paying the vet, paying feed and knowing that you support these families. It's not that I don't want to pay them. I don't have the money to do it right now." He says low milk prices have eaten up equity, and at the same time, raised the cost of production.

Given the chance to do it all over again, Anderson said he's not sure what he'd choose. "You never want to look back. This is a way of life. You're not going to get rich doing it, but you hope to make a living at it."

He paused and grew emotional at the thought of losing his farm. "It's hard. My short term goal is to be here so my daughter can have her graduation party in the backyard."

A majority of us don't get up before the sun to tend to the cows. Many of us have never seen the inside of a tractor, but we can understand the pride that is tightly woven into Wisconsin's farming industry. It's a sentiment that Travis Thompson shares, "All these guys in Ag are doing a great job. They're working hard and it would be nice if there were some rewards for them. And right now, it's hard to see that. So we're hoping the next few years are a little more positive."

There is potential to reshape the landscape for farmers with the passage of the USMCA agreement. President Trump is expected to sign phase one of a trade deal between the U.S. and China this week.

Andrea Albers

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