From: Glen Groth
Winona County Farm Bureau Board of Directors
These are tough times in agriculture. Farmers in Winona County and beyond have experienced several years of below cost of production crop and livestock prices, ever-changing consumer demands and, in 2019, a historically wet spring that has delayed planting and slowed crop growth. In the face of these pressures, farmers everywhere are looking to make changes to their farms to ensure that their farm remains sustainable for decades to come.
For some farmers, those changes take the place of a new source of income such as custom farming activities. Others have added value to what they produce by pursuing organic certification or direct-marketing opportunities. Some farmers have had to make hard choices to discontinue unprofitable farming enterprises to focus on those with greater returns. But one option that is available to farmers in every other county in the region has been off the table for 21 years for Winona County’s farmers: the choice to expand livestock farms beyond 1,500 animal units (au).
As livestock producers look at how to compete in an economically challenging environment, expansion on one site is perennially the most popular option. For some, growth means generating enough income to bring other family members into the farm — for others, an expanded feedlot means being able to care for all their animals on one site. Some farms need additional animals to be able to cash flow facility upgrades that are more animal and environmentally friendly, while others just need more income to remain financially stable. But in Winona County, a decades-old decision made in the county boardroom has impacted decisions made by farm families around the kitchen table.
There is no sector of agriculture that has been more impacted by this arbitrary rule than the county’s dairy industry. Thirty years ago, a dairy farm milking 100 cows was considered large. In 2019, farms with 1,000 cows are considered to be mid-sized. Unlike farms raising pork, poultry or beef cattle, dairy farms are built around central milking facilities that are very expensive to build, staff and maintain. Dairy farms also rely on forages for the majority of cattle feed. Forages are extremely bulky, and because they are harvested wet (to be preserved by fermentation), they are very expensive to haul to multiple sites. Operating on multiple sites is common for farmers producing other livestock species. But building and operating milking facilities on multiple sites is not a financially viable strategy.
Why has this barrier to modernization and economic development remained in place — even while no other county in the region has adopted an au cap as low as Winona County’s, even while farmers watch as our neighbors in the city of Winona celebrate other large-scale developments by institutions like Winona State and Fastenal, and even as we laud the adoption of the latest technology by every other sector of the economy? The simple answer is that we haven’t been allowed to have a community conversation on the issue. Our urban county commissioners have repeatedly blocked attempts to form a committee to bring all concerned parties to the table to discuss how we can allow our livestock farms to grow while maintaining clean water and addressing the concerns of others in the community.
It comes as news to no one that there are a wide variety of opinions on the topics, even within the farming community. There are many people concerned with the impacts on small farms by the growth of other farms, some worry about water quality and yet others have a fundamentally different vision for how our economy should work. However, if there is validity to all of these concerns, why have supporters of the au cap been so afraid of bringing the topic up for discussion?
What is often misunderstood is that the macro-economic trends shaping Winona County’s farms are coming from far outside our borders. Capping the size of livestock farms in the county doesn’t create breathing room for smaller farms, but does limit the ability of other farms to adapt to the forces applying pressure to the industry. It is appreciated that people have empathy for the farm families that are currently struggling. It is understandable that people want to take action. But, taking actions that hamper the ability of farms to adapt to the economic realities of today impedes the goal of achieving equitable prosperity tomorrow.
Water quality seems to be at the center of much of the debate surrounding agriculture in the county and beyond. If you haven’t been involved in agriculture for the past 20 years, it is easy to be unaware of the measures today’s farms are taking to protect water quality that were not commonplace in previous decades. When the au cap was established in 1998, precision nutrient application was in its infancy, spreading manure on frozen and snow-covered ground was routine because long-term manure storage was uncommon and most farmers still relied on intensive tillage to get a good crop. In 2019, it’s standard practice for farmers to apply nutrients and manure at different rates based on soil tests taken across a field to provide the correct nutrition for crops while avoiding over application. Few, if any, newly constructed livestock barns are built without some sort of manure storage that allows farmers to avoid application when the potential for runoff is high. Today’s manure application equipment has also evolved so the impact on neighboring landowners in the form of odor and road traffic is reduced. Meanwhile farmers have come to recognize the value of holding manure nutrients in place with cover crops and reducing tillage.
Times have changed, and the farm families of Winona County deserve to have the issue revisited. This isn’t about advancing one family’s ambitions or promoting one model for agricultural prosperity. This is about allowing farmers the freedom to make the choices they need to succeed in a changing environment. If the discussion takes place in a collaborative manner, with input from agriculture and members of the community, we can form a plan that does the following:
• Allows family farms to grow their livestock farms
• Preserves our water quality
• Maintains and expands economic opportunity for all farms
• Emphasizes the importance of family farms
But first, our County Board must act. Contact your county commissioner and ask them to direct resources to study the issue, form a committee to consider and then present all sides of the issue to the public and the County Board, and then hold listening sessions before placing the issue on the County Board agenda. Hopefully, through this process we can find a way to move forward so that Winona County’s farm families are no longer shackled by a policy that has placed a limit on their future. It’s time for the conversation.