PINE ISLAND, Minn. (FOX 9) - Small Minnesota farmers are trying to hang onto to their livelihoods, but it feels like economics, overproduction, politics, and even the weather, are all conspiring against them.
With four years of low milk and crop prices, plus the ongoing trade dispute with China, and a wet planting season, it is harder than ever to cling to the edge.
Millennial Mark Berg knows the struggles all too well as he has chosen to stay and work on his parents small dairy farm in southern Minnesota near the town of Pine Island.
“Farming is something I always truly loved and enjoyed,” he said.
At the same time he knows when the milk truck leaves the farm, there is a loss of money.
“There are some farmers who hope it gets better, but it’s not getting better, and that is the issue we are having,” he said.
A few months ago, his parents said they needed to sell some of the herd to pay the bills.
“It’s kind of a difficult situation to decide which ones you want to get rid of because they’re our family. We work with them 365 days a year. Not easy to say that one can go because it’s a heartfelt decision,” Berg said.
In a solitary moment in the milking barn, Berg poured his life out to Facebook and to a half a million people around the world.
“I love these fricking cows more than anything else. I don’t want to do anything else, and I’m not financially stable enough to take over a farm. And you can’t take over a business that’s going to fail. This is like a guaranteed failure,” he said in the Facebook video.
“I said what I needed to say and many said ‘thank you’ for saying that. They wanted to say it for years, but didn’t know how,” Berg told Fox 9.
Down the road from the Bergs, Scott Ruegg sold 47 of his own cows a few weeks ago.
“They’re just like your family. You care for them every day. When they go you lose a part of you. It was really hard for me to come down to the barn those first days afterwards. Still is, in some ways,” Ruegg said.
He’s been farming since he was 15; he bought the land from his grandfather.
Seeing his herd hauled away, Berg felt like giving up.
“You know, it’s something you’ve done your entire life and nothing else. You’d think you’d be happy but you’re not. You try to be.” he said with tears in his eyes. “I guess it’s the unknown, what we’re going to be able to do and keep going with here, versus just sell everything, go to town and get a job,”
IF THERE IS A JOB LEFT
A poor farmer does not eat at the local café, does not buy a new tractor, or get a motor repaired.
“The small dairies have really been hit hard, so a lot of the family farms are gone,” said Nick Kramer, who along with his brother and father, operates Garr’s Mobile Repair and Garage in Pine Island.
“We have a lot of corporate guys and bigger farmers. But they lease a lot of their equipment so we don’t see much of the older equipment like we used to,” Kramer said.
“It’s got to change I know that, got to change, or all these smaller towns will be ghost towns,” said Tony Olson, who runs Olson Motor Repair with his son.
FARM NUMBERS SHRINK
The small town of Pine Island has dairy in its blood.
Settled in 1854 by Swiss immigrants, it became Minnesota’s cheese making mecca. In 1911, the local farmers made a 4,000-pound block of cheese that was the talk of the Minnesota State Fair. Back then, there were 250 dairy farms within 12 miles of town. Today there are 22.
In the 21st Century alone, Minnesota lost 66 percent (5,524) of its dairy farms, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The vast majority of farms that have gone under were relatively small, with 100 head or fewer.
The big dairies keep getting bigger. Twenty years ago, there were 16 farms with 1,000 head of cattle or more, today it is 84. Eight dairies have more than 5,000 cows. The bigger farm, the bigger the profit margin.
The Louriston Dairy has nearly 10,000 milking cows on a factory farm near Willmar. It’s owned by Riverview LLC, a family owned business, which has 60,000 cows in Minnesota.
DAIRY FARMERS BELOW POVERTY LEVEL
According to Professor Dale Nordquist of the University of Minnesota, farm income hasn’t been this low since the farm crisis of the ’80s.
“We are in a very severe downturn,” he commented.
The average farmer in Minnesota today makes $26,055; dairy farmers are below the poverty rate at just $14,697, according to survey data compiled by the University of Minnesota Extension and the Centers for Excellence at Minnesota State.
That survey also shows a widening wealth gap among farms.
The top 20 percent, mostly larger farms, on average made $184,000. The bottom 20 percent went $72,000 in the red.
“I don’t think this is a sustainable situation. We don’t know when it is going to turn or what’s going to turn it.,” Nordquist said.
“DON’T KNOW WHERE MY PLACE IS”
Jim and Pennie Goplen, decided to fold. They sold their cows and equipment on their Pine Island area farm to pay off debt.
“You reach that point where you say I don’t think it is going to be any better than this year. I’m not saying it won’t’ get better down the road. In the meantime, do I dare gamble anymore,” Jim said.
The couple is renting out their land this year, instead of planting it.
“This year we’ve heard several aren’t getting their operating loans. And, this is hard to say; maybe it’s for their own good that they won’t get so far backwards that you don’t ever see daylight at the end of the tunnel,” Pennie said.
They both got jobs; selling seed and working part time at a local farm auction, watching people’s lives go to the highest bidder.