CEDAR GROVE — Get big or get out. That's the dilemma many Wisconsin farming families are facing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says about 90% of all farming revenue goes to just 7% of the nation's farms — the biggest farms in America. Meanwhile, survey data from the USDA this year shows that Wisconsin lost another 8% of its farms between 2021 and 2022. Since 2008 more than 12,000 farms have shut down in the dairy state.
Now, for some, joining the fight against climate change could be the way to save the family farm.
Brody Stapel owns Double Dutch Dairy LLC in Cedar Grove. He believes the future of agriculture in Wisconsin is diverse. "From cranberries, to cheese, to potatoes... I mean, we grow it all here," he said with a smile.
But to survive, Stapel says income streams must also diversify and his farm is not immune. "We met a couple weeks ago with a solar representative about maybe putting solar on our buildings," he recalled.
Stapel is also the president of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, one of the largest dairy co-ops in the country, which was awarded a $50 million USDA grant in June. The money will allow farmers to test out climate-smart production practices and share data.
"If I can show my neighbor, and I can go to other farmers — that's how we learn the best," explained Stapel. "Because we've been through it, we've experienced it firsthand. It's not in a lab, it's not a university campus where conditions are perfect. It's on my farm. In my field."
And it's not just happening in southeastern Wisconsin. The USDA is investing $3 billion in pilot projects that aim to expand production and the market for climate-smart commodities. An example would be converting manure into low-carbon fuel.
"There's a need for marine fuel and aviation fuel that is low carbon," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "This, by the way, is a $36 billion gallon industry just for the U.S."
Vilsack mapped out 9 potential climate-smart income streams during a recent visit to an organic farm in Waukesha County. "I think what we want to do is send a message of hope, a message that there is something other than 'get big or get out' (a message) that you can be entrepreneurial."
"Farmers are used to going to the mailbox and getting the milk check, and that's what we live off of," added Stapel, who can see the value in climate-smart agriculture. But he says to convince his peers the discussion will need to highlight the benefit for each individual farm.
This USDA program, Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities, has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers, some have introduced bills to try and stop the program or have voted to block future spending.