These are tough times in agriculture and farmers everywhere are looking to make changes to ensure that their farms remain sustainable for decades to come.
For some, 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 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 at one site is perennially the most popular option. This is especially true for dairy farmers because of the unique logistics involved with running a dairy operation.
For farmers, 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 of 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 and others just need more income to remain financially stable.
But in Winona County, a decades old decision made in the county board room has impacted decisions made by farm families around the kitchen table.
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.
If family farms that are in the position to do so are not allowed to make moves to remain competitive, the only players left in agriculture will be the titans of agribusiness.
Water quality seems to be at the center of much of the debate. Many people are 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 is standard practice for farmers to apply nutrients and manure at different rates based on soil tests as well as utilize manure handling equipment that minimizes a farm’s local footprint. Farmers also 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 allows family farms to grow while maintaining water quality and economic opportunity for all farms in Winona County.