Adapting to rapid change in agriculture

Article written by Leigh Presley, Agriculture Extension Educator. 
Originally published in the Kenosha News.

I recently spent a long weekend where I grew up, east of Wausau and north of Wisconsin’s Tension Zone, the natural division between the two major ecological regions of our state.

Some would say that it’s also a reference to the lower traffic volumes and overall stress levels of the area. If you’ve been there, I think you’d agree.

Extended periods away from this place have made the changes happening in my old neighborhood seem more evident:

In a time of low milk prices, a neighbor has started milking in an old dairy barn that hasn’t seen cows in years.

One farm in the area is expanding — adding onto a large free-stall barn built several years ago.

Another young family decided to sell their dairy herd and raise beef cattle, keeping some farmland and putting the rest up for sale.

Neighbors along our rural road have ventured into part-time farm enterprises like U-Pick blueberries and Christmas trees.

The old dilapidated one-room schoolhouse is finally being put up for sale by its absentee owner.

The physical changes I see on the landscape back home — and those happening here, south of the Tension Zone — are an indication of how rapidly the agriculture industry and the rural environment is changing, and how the people and businesses involved are navigating the change, each in their unique way.

As we see agriculture and the landscape changing around us, it’s important to consider some of the major trends that are pushing decisions manifested on the land.

Labor

With farm labor in short supply, small and medium-sized dairies are looking for ways to adapt. In some cases, this has led to the adoption of robotic systems that automate time- and labor-consuming tasks, like milking cows and feeding calves. According to Doug Reinemann, University of Wisconsin professor in the department of biological systems engineering, more than 300 farms (a majority of those in Wisconsin) in the U.S. have robotic milking systems, and adoption is expected to rise as technology costs decrease.

Energy

As the cost of renewable energy technology decreases, agriculture has become a key player in energy production. Whether it’s by leasing land to renewable energy companies or generating their own solar power, farms are seeing a payoff and a way to stay viable. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 2,935 farms in Wisconsin have some form of renewable energy-producing system on-site, an 84 percent increase over 2012.

Health and diet

With the increased popularity in meat and dairy alternatives, and CBD derived from hemp being sold everywhere and in everything, including beer and cocktails, the consumer’s diet is having a big impact on what plants go in the ground — and it can translate to more opportunities for diversification in agriculture. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the number of Wisconsin farms growing fruits, nuts and vegetables has increased since 2012. We’ll see if there’s a hemp question in the 2022 Census.

Input costs

Tight margins can force farmers to minimize their input expenses and place less emphasis on getting the highest yield. During a downcycle in agriculture like the one we’re in, this might translate to a farmer using less fertilizer or planting a conventional corn or soybean hybrid instead of a more expensive genetically modified variety.

Depending on perspective

Depending on your vantage point, these trends and changes might seem positive, negative or maybe somewhere in the middle.

Regardless of where I stand on any one of them, I find it important to keep in mind the complex business decisions farmers have to make in order to adapt in a time of rapid change.