The New York Times’ write-up on Wisconsin’s struggling dairy farmers reads like a case study in how conservatism works to screw over its own constituents as much as or more than any of the people conservatism promises to screw over. The consequences are severe, and in the case of Wisconsin, they are that the total number of dairy herds in the state is now below 8,000: “Over the past two years, nearly 1,200 of the state’s dairy farms have stopped milking cows and so far this year, another 212 have disappeared, with many shifting production to beef or vegetables.”
How did it happen? Through a perfect storm of Republican decisions, all coming together to swamp the state’s dairy farmers with one hit after another.
• At heart, it is an oversupply problem. Former (Republican) Gov. Scott Walker set a goal of overtaking (Democratic) California in milk production, for no particular reason other than personal pride and/or spite. The policies he pushed to encourage production worked well—and tanked milk prices, sending them from $25 per 100 lbs to under $17. “It was more an example of arrogance than practicality,” Family Farm Defenders president Joel Greeno told The Times.
• On top of that, the new Republican fury against immigrants—and, especially, the Trump administration’s efforts against them—have dried up the supply of immigrant farm labor. Trump may have employed immigrants by the dozens in his own private clubs, but it’s getting difficult for the farmers of America to find the workers they need to get their products from farm to market.
• And then came the Trump trade war. Trump’s new tariffs meant to cut metals imports have resulted in a bevy of retaliatory tariffs. Among the most devastating to these particular farmers: a new 25% Mexican tariff on American cheese. That’s reduced foreign demand even further in a market already suffering from overproduction. The Times pegs expected lost farm revenue from dairy tariffs at about $16.6 billion—far above what Trump’s one-check subsidies to farmers are even pretending to cover.
Put it all together, add new corporate megafarms, and there you go: a recipe for shuttering family dairy farms by the hundreds, both in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The ongoing Trump trade war has caused personal farm income to fall by the most that it has in three years.
Trump is still assuring farmers that his still-theoretical modifications to NAFTA will make all the current market pain worthwhile and then some. It’s not likely that the 1,400 shuttered Wisconsin dairy farms will find much solace in that.
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