The curse of the dairy economy claims another farm

Three dairy farms a day go out of business in Wisconsin, the dairy state. Like any business story, it’s a tale of low prices for milk and high prices for feed and supplies. It’s simple math.

But it’s hard not to feel for the people whose job is their life and always has been.

The La Crosse Tribune provides a great story of one farmer today — Ryan Dunham, of Westby, Wis., southwest of La Crosse.

The winter was too much. The farm economy too poor. He sold his herd at the end of April. He’s out of the dairy business.

Now, he’s facing the toughest question: “what now?”

He bought his first cow with money he earned by helping his dad harvest tobacco. He was 5 years old. When his father died, he bought the farm from his mom — the mom who used to milk cows by hand before she went to school in the morning.

Ryan had hoped to pass the farm along to one of his six children.

And he still hopes to get more cows again and start anew. But there’s that dairy depression going on right now.

The math of being a small dairy farmer, though, doesn’t work anymore.

“You start adding more cows, now you need more help but now you have expensive help, now you need more cows to pay the help but now all of a sudden you need more land, you need bigger equipment, and all of a sudden your margins start shrinking, and you start losing control,” he tells the Tribune. “It isn’t a family farm anymore.”

The stress of the volatile market, 18-hour work days between the tree and dairy farms, and the inability make ends meet took its toll on his family. Communication and trust between Dunnum and his wife broke down when she found out he wasn’t able to pay some of the bills.

“I feel like I let her down,” he said, his voice breaking. “Everything’s imploding and what do you do?”

He said it would take about $25,000 to get his dairy business rolling again, but banks are hesitant to provide a loan with only his equity as collateral, without evidence of a cash flow.

“He was upset,” he said of his 15-year-old son the night he sold the herd. “‘I said you know what? Maybe this is the end of the curse.’ Years, generations. The amount of work I put in to this.”