Sending the Cattle Down the Road, a Story of Disproportionate Privilege and St. Croix County Family Farming

 
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Craig Fouks grew up on a dairy farm in St. Croix Country and he farmed for 46 years. Sadly his farming career ended in the summer of 2018, as he recalls, “sending the cattle down the road, and the machinery followed.”

Craig’s farming career got to a point of crossroads within the last few years. The farming industry is constantly changing, and farmers are encouraged to get better or get out. “We got to a point in our farming career where we had to either quit or get better. As I watched the profit margins over the last forty years, they just got tighter and tighter and tighter,” said Craig.

Craig isn’t the only Wisconsinite who felt the profit margins closing in on him. Wisconsin Public Radio reported that the state lost 638 dairy farms in 2018, according to data from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. This decline resulted in 7.25 percent of the number of registered dairy herds, which is the biggest drop recorded since 2004. 2018 also had “the lowest average milk price since the market fell in 2015.

This has not changed going into 2019. In the first quarter of 2019, Wisconsin lost another 212 dairy farmers. On April 1, the number of licensed dairy farms was 7,898. If the current trend continues, Wisconsin will be on track to lose 850 more dairy farms in 2019, a loss of more than ten percent.

Making dairy farm improvements under pressure

Craig decided to make the needed improvements that one could while the price of milk was high, so he decided to build a modern freestall barn just like his father did in 1970.

“My dad built a freestall barn, and he was a pioneer for his time. I thought I would follow his trend and update it around here, so I built a nice freestall barn, enough for two families to live on,” said Craig. He was invested in cow health and comfort in order to have the best milk outcome and had hoped to switch to robotic milkers within the next few years.

As he finished his updates on the freestall barn in April of 2016, the price of milk was still good, but a year later, things had changed for the worse. Craig said, “The price of milk just kept getting lower and lower, and it got to the point where we just couldn’t make it anymore, so we decided to liquidate last August.”

Falling victim to milk prices and delaying retirement

Craig couldn’t sustain the improvements he was making as the price of milk continued to fall. Craig was your typical small family farmer, and because of his core values of family, hard work, and resilience, he felt a backlash from the farming industry that skipped over him and put their focus on corporate farms.

I will have to figure out a way to make an income during my retirement years.
— Craig Fouks

“The big guys kept getting bigger and the smaller family farms kept shrinking. I thought I could improve my milk production and get around it. I really did. I thought the price of milk would have come back and we would be okay.”

Craig now drives semi-truck 8-12 hours a day, five days a week. After he had to liquidate, much of his finances had to come from his savings which have now forced him to continue working into his planned retirement.

Craig shared that “things are good, and things are bad, it is mostly bad because I will have to figure out a way to make an income during my retirement years.”

The weight of mental health impact

Through his experience, Craig faced the reality of excessive stress as he was hospitalized for anxiety and depression twice over the last few years. When the price of milk dropped two cycles ago, he claimed he “got back through it, and things got better.”

But then when the price of milk dropped most recently, and the bank let him know he was not getting his spring operating loan, he felt “that same feeling coming on all over again” and would end up hospitalized for the second time. “I was still being affected at this time of the year a year ago, and my wife was running the farm. I was just a ghost of my own self. Physically, I really could not handle the stress.”

Suicide rates are highest in rural communities according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide rates are highest in rural communities according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Craig has experienced being told that he must always get bigger, do the best, and improve at speeds that are not humanly possible as the margins continue to get tighter and tighter. “In all of the farming magazines they keep harping on us to get more efficient, but farmers are the most efficient businesses in the world. What the farmer needs most is the ability to set his own price,” said Craig.

Through his hardships, Craig has reflected on what losing his farm meant to him within areas of uncertainty. “People always ask me when the cows went down the road how I felt. This was not the way I planned things to go, and I feel bad about it, but for me, I have not farmed with my heart, I have farmed with my head all of my life. I have known someday things were going to change.”

Lending a hand to your neighbors in need

Craig encouraged people of St. Croix County to try to learn more about what is happening to small family farmers, but he emphasized that he does not expect people to do so as they don't have much free time. “They can try to learn more and see if they can help others but a lot of people in this county are just struggling on their own to raise families, and they cannot handle much more than that.”

For non-farming families, there’s actually a lot you can do to get involved around the county and state. St. Croix County farming families are struggling, and we need to work together as a united front to ensure our government provides equitable measures to all of the people in our county. To dip your toes in the water, you can attend our next meeting or, to really dig in, go to our website to sign up and volunteer or join a committee.

The St. Croix County Democrats are opening a party office in Baldwin in order to further invest in improving the lives of rural families. There has been harm caused by Trump’s trade war and Walker’s milk production program, and we’re dedicated to putting working families first and supporting them along the way. If you’re a small family farmer, we’ll be reaching out to you to learn about your most pressing concerns and better fight and represent you and your families.

This story is not that different from other small family farmers in and around St. Croix County. Farming was more than a career for Craig, it was a lifestyle, a rewarding, risk-taking, familiar path that he followed from past generations. He claims that financially speaking, “farming has always been a struggle.” And although that may be so, much of the struggle has been an extension of unnecessary stress and a lack of admiration of the backbone of our country; small family farms.

 
Sam Stroozas