The face of farming in Winona County is shifting. Farms are changing in size, farmers are aging, and what operators are producing is changing, too. As grain trucks haul away this year's harvest from the fields, farmers and local leaders are reflecting on how agriculture has evolved and where it is going.
Winona County farms are getting bigger and smaller. To earn a living amidst shrinking margins, many successful farmers have continued to add acres and animals. At the same time, part-time farmers and hobbyists have maintained their connection to the land — or developed new ones — with fewer acres. Specialty growers, too, have found success with smaller holdings. Despite the very real trend of farms being consolidated, the total number of farms in Winona County has increased by roughly 100 between 1997 and 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That growth, county officials hypothesized, is likely due to an uptick in small holdings.
Lewiston dairyman Bill Rowekamp dragged a chisel plow through his fields Monday, hoping to cultivate as many acres as possible before a chance of rain. In the 30-plus years he has been operating his family's third-generation dairy, he has doubled the acreage of his farm and increased his herd from 150 cows to over 300.
Margins for milking operations have thinned and thinned over his career, Rowekamp said. "It's forced us to spread those costs to more acres or more animals." The story is the same for crop and hog farms, he said. "You've got to produce more to make any money."
"There are certain parties that have been aggressively buying farmland," said County Recorder Bob Bambenek when asked about consolidation and trends in land purchases. Some of those buyers, he said, have been open about their reasons for purchasing agricultural land: they felt it was a good investment. At a time when stocks, bonds, and other forms of investment have been lackluster, the value of farmland has risen rapidly in recent years.
At the same time, the number of hobby farms and other small farms has been increasing, he said, an observation affirmed by USDA Censuses. The USDA defines a "farm" as any place selling over $1,000 worth of agricultural products in a year. The number of places in Minnesota and Wisconsin that fall into the lowest end of the farm category have grown in recent years. Of 25 recent Winona County land sales, 21 were sites under 50 acres, noted Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman.
At both ends of the spectrum, specialization is a larger trend, said Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth. "When I was growing up, most people had a few cows and a few pigs" and raised crops, he recalled. "The diverse farms of the past have gone by the wayside," he continued. Now, he added, "people are focusing on what they're good at, what they're talented at." That is true of large dairy, hog, and crop operations and of the new, small farms, he said. Groth noted the increase in the number of such farms producing specialty products, like organic produce and local farmers' market goods, or utilizing direct sales and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models. "At that end of the industry they're kind of going in the opposite direction," from larger farms, he added.
The rising price of farmland — it more than tripled between 1992 and 2007, according to the USDA — may be part of the reason for the dualism in the local market. High prices may drive some toward alternative forms of agriculture that are feasible on smaller plots, Gilman suggested. At the same time, said Rowekamp, high prices make it hard for farmers who are not well-established to buy sizable amounts of land.
"The people that are getting squeezed out of the business are the people in the middle," Rowekamp said from the cab of his tractor. "You see that people in the mid-sized range have shrunk," agreed Groth. Narrowing margins have forced farmers to grow, and soaring land prices have made it difficult for young farmers, Groth observed.
"The number of small and mid-sized dairy farms has eroded horribly," said Land Stewardship Project Program Policy Organizer Doug Nopar. Farms of that size do not receive the same level of support from government policy and university extension programs as large-scale farms do, he continued. It is a shame, he said, because it is "the number of farming operations in a community that really determine how vital that community will be." Farm ownership is "a fundamentally healthy relationship" that our community should be cultivating and propagating, he said.
The consolidation of local farms is not all bad, said Groth. Larger operations, he noted, are often able to give operators and employees more time off. With hectic seasons, that is a luxury not all farms can afford.
"People are going to do what makes them happy," he said. For some that may mean bowing out and opting for a steady paycheck over the uncertainty of farm ownership. "If I can make just as much money working in town, and I don't have the risk of losing a crop or losing my livestock, the stress factor is gone. It's a quality of life issue," he added.
Changes to agriculture bring benefits, too, Rowekamp commented. For example, his cows have pedometers in their collars that measure how many steps they take each day. Sensors in his milking parlor alert him when cows' movement drops suddenly, often a sign of illness. "With all this technology we can take so much better care of our animals," he said.
Despite the challenges, farming still holds a deep meaning and appeal for some. "We're paper rich and money poor, but I love what I'm doing," Rowekamp said. "And in this day and age, that's what's important. I tell young guys who are thinking of getting in, 'You'd better love it. That's the only thing that gets you through sometimes.'"