Tag: agriculture

Don’t blame Canada for Wisconsin’s dairy crisis

The Canadian news program The National, which airs on Canada’s public broadcaster CBC in Canada, recently did a feature story about the dairy crisis in Wisconsin, which President Donald Trump is trying to falsely blame on Canada and their policies regarding trade of ultra-filtered milk from the United States to Canada.

The CBC featured a pair of Wisconsin dairy farm families, the Sauer family of the Waterloo, Wisconsin area and the family of Sarah Lloyd and Nels Nelson of Columbia County. Having watched the video on the CBC website more than once, it’s inherently clear to me that overproduction, not international trade policies, are responsible for Wisconsin’s dairy crisis. Despite the real problems facing Wisconsin dairy, Trump has tried to blame Canada for the struggles that Wisconsin dairy farmers have faced, and it’s clear to me that Trump has no real understanding of how the dairy industry works.

Additionally, as farmer and Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) regional director Chris Holman stated on the WFU website, state government policies in Wisconsin have only made the overproduction problem in the Wisconsin dairy industry even worse, and have also led to fewer dairy farms producing more of Wisconsin’s milk:

Here in Wisconsin, state programs like the Grow Wisconsin Dairy 30×20 Initiative have made the situation even worse. Beyond pushing Wisconsin dairy farmers to reach 30 billion pounds of milk production by 2020, the initiative—with no sense of irony—provides grants “to improve the long-term viability of Wisconsin’s Dairy Industry.” If you dive into data from USDA and the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistic Service, we’ve lost 2,411 dairy farms since March 2012 when the 30 x 20 initiative was announced. That’s an average of almost 500 dairy farms per year. We are growing our production but it is being done by fewer and fewer, larger farms.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union is an organization that seeks to improve the quality of life of family farmers and rural communities in Wisconsin.

Trump can blame Canada and sing the Green Acres theme song all he wants, but it’s not going to change the fact that he doesn’t understand the real problems facing Wisconsin’s dairy farm families.

Politically abandoned by both major parties, farmer suicide rates higher than during 1980’s farm crisis

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.


The 1980’s was not a good decade for American midwestern family farmers by anyone’s imagination. In fact, for much of the 1980’s, the Upper Midwest was in the grip of a crippling farm crisis that drove thousands of family farmers off of their land and drove many to take their own lives.

In 2017, the suicide rate among male farmers in the United States is much higher than it was during the 1980’s:

The National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., tracked farm suicides during the 1980s in the Upper Midwest, the region most affected by the farm crisis, to try to better understand the relationships between the farm economy and suicide.

They found that 913 male farmers in the region committed suicide during that decade, with rates peaking in 1982 at 58 suicides for every 100,000 male farmers and ranchers.

[…]

Compare that with this year’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report, which found that current national suicide rates for people working in agriculture are 84.5 per 100,000 overall, and 90.5 per 100,000 among males. This means that suicide rates among male farmers are now more than 50 percent higher than they were in 1982, at the peak of the farm crisis.

(Emphasis is mine; I was not able to find a 1982 figure for suicide rates among the overall farmer and rancher population.)

There are major reasons why the suicide rate among farmers and ranchers is so high. First, crop prices are low to the point that farmers are not getting a fair price for their crop and rural communities that are dependent on the agricultural industry are suffering as a result of it. Second, farmers and ranchers have been effectively abandoned by both major political parties: most, but not all, farmers and ranchers in the United States vote for Republican political candidates, but Republican agricultural policies negatively impact family farmers and ranchers, and most Democratic elected officials who remain in office represent heavily-urbanized political constituencies, so the Democratic Party has increasingly ignored the legitimate concerns of rural voters.

Something is seriously wrong in rural America when the suicide rate among those who produce our nation’s food is extremely high.

Self-driving cars are a threat to the American way of life

President Obama recently pinned an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette praising self-driving cars as “an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live”.

Personally, I believe that self-driving cars are a grave threat to the American way of life.

Thousands of Americans are employed as taxi drivers, pizza deliverers, and in other similar professions. If self-driving cars were to become the norm, you can kiss thousands of American jobs, many of which are among the few American jobs nowadays that do not require a college degree, goodbye. Their jobs would be effectively replaced by computers manufactured in China or other foreign countries.

Also, who would want to watch a NASCAR race in which actual race car drivers are replaced by computer-driven cars? NASCAR would no longer be an actual sport if computers replaced drivers; instead, it would become effectively as scripted as WWE, but without the soap opera-esque storylines to keep the audience engaged. There’s a lot more entertainment watching real race car drivers compete against each other than computers competing against each other.

Another instance where self-driving vehicles are a threat to the American way of life is the all-American family farm. If tractors, combines, and other motorized farm implements are replaced with computer-driven machines, then it would be a lot easier for large agribusiness corporations like Bayer (which recently acquired Monsanto) to sweep in and take over family farms across the country.

While Obama has cited elderly people and disabled people (although I’m not elderly (I’m 26 years of age), I have Asperger’s syndrome, and I don’t drive) as two groups of people that might benefit from self-driving cars, the sobering reality is that there’s a lot more people who would be negatively impacted than those who would be positively impacted by self-driving vehicles. In fact, many of those who could benefit from self-driving cars don’t have cell phones that would be needed for them to get a ride in a self-driving car, either for cost reasons (most elderly and disabled people are very poor), or the nature of their disability makes it virtually impossible for them to operate a cell phone.

A cautionary tale about how room-and-pillar mining destroys Illinois farmland

Larry Skinner, a farmer from near Newman, Illinois, located in the east-central region of the state, is still dealing with environmental damage from a coal mine under his farm that closed in the 1980’s. Specifically, his farmland is subsiding due to the room-and-pillar mining leaving the ground very weak, especially above where “rooms” created by the mining. Much of Skinner’s land is now unsuitable for farming due to the areas where the ground has sunk being too wet or flooded, and Skinner has to pay out of his own pocket to fix the subsidence, because the mining company that closed the mine under his land all those years ago has long since changed hands.

Skinner’s story, which you can read about here, serves as a cautionary tale about how room-and-pillar coal mining turns some of the most fertile farmland in the entire world into low spots where rainwater collects and renders the land unsuitable for growing crops like corn and soybeans. While room-and-pillar mining is designed to prevent subsidence, in practice, areas where “rooms” have been created by mining between “pillars” left untouched by the mining are very prone to subsiding and causing environmental damage.

Despite the damage that room-and-pillar mining has done to farmland in east-central Illinois, one mining company, the Indiana-based Sunrise Coal company, wants to put even more Illinois farmland at risk of serious environmental damage. The proposed Sunrise Coal mine, which would be located in southwestern Vermilion County, would consist of a room-and-pillar mining operation under fertile farmland, as well as a 500-acre, above-ground coal processing plant and rail transfer point. Additionally, ponds would need to be constructed to store liquid slurry waste generated from the washing process used to remove impurities from the coal. In addition to the risk of farmland subsidence associated with room-and-pillar mining, there’s additional environmental threats associated with the proposed mine, such as coal dust ending up on crops and farmland from the processing plant, as well as the risk of the slurry ponds leaking and causing groundwater to become contaminated. The environmental risks associated with the proposed mine are so severe, Sue Smith and her husband, who own a 1,600-acre farm near the site of the proposed mine, have refused to sell the mineral rights to their land to Sunrise Coal.

As someone from a community, located about 13 miles or so to the northeast of the proposed mining site, that was built around coal mines in the early 20th century, I’m not completely against coal mining. However, there are significant environmental risks associated with the proposed room-and-pillar coal mining operation in southwestern Vermilion County that could cause long-term environmental damage that would negatively impact the area for decades, if not permanently.

How the Republican agenda hurts rural Wisconsinites

I’m going to share something that Wisconsin State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton), wrote for the Madison, Wisconsin-based newspaper The Cap Times a week and a half or so ago. In her op-ed, Hesselbein talked about how the Republicans’ state budget in Wisconsin hurts rural Wisconsinites especially hard:

  • On public schools, the Republican budget cuts $150/pupil from Wisconsin’s K-12 public school districts in the 2015-2016 school year and $135/pupil from Wisconsin’s K-12 public school districts over the biennium (the two-year period of the budget). Additionally, Republican Governor Scott Walker wants more charter schools, which get public funds that would otherwise go to public schools, in Wisconsin. Furthermore, the Republican budget cuts funding used to create homeschooling lessons and online educational materials, which are produced by Wisconsin MediaLab. These cuts could force some rural school districts in Wisconsin to consolidate, costing small towns jobs they need to survive.
  • On rural sanitation, Walker proposed, in the original state budget proposal, to eliminate a fund that helps low-income Wisconsinites replace failing septic systems, but it had its funds restored by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature.
  • On rural roads, Walker proposed eliminating funding for removal of deer carcasses from rural roads in Wisconsin, which would have caused an even greater hazard to people driving in rural areas of Wisconsin. This also had its funding restored by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) of the Wisconsin State Legislature.
  • On rural health, the Republican budget eliminates both Wisconsin’s Rural Physician Residency Assistance Program and a loan forgiveness program designed to encourage medics to work in rural areas of Wisconsin. The program also cuts $25 million in Medicaid funding to most of Wisconsin’s community health centers.
  • On local government property insurance, Walker proposed eliminating Wisconsin’s Local Government Property Insurance Fund, which insures street sweepers, salt sheds, and other things that local governments in Wisconsin own and use to carry out street maintenance and other duties of local governments in Wisconsin. The City of Middleton, the Village of Waunakee, and the Village of Cross Plains, three incorporated municipalities in Hesselbein’s state assembly district, currently pay a combined total of $120,419 ($51,342 for Middleton, $49,214 for Waunakee, and $19,863 for Cross Plains) in premiums for insurance provided by the state’s local government insurance fund. If this fund is eliminated, local governments all across Wisconsin would have to pay more for local government property insurance from the private sector, if that kind of insurance is obtainable from the private sector. In its review of Walker’s budget proposal, the Wisconsin State Legislature delayed the demise of the program by two years.
  • On higher education, the University of Wisconsin Extension (UW-Extension) maintains a presence in all 72 Wisconsin counties, providing assistance to Wisconsinites in areas such as agriculture, 4-H youth development programs, and family living. Walker’s proposed funding cuts to the entire University of Wisconsin System (UW-System), which includes the UW-Extension, could result in the loss of 65 to 80 county-level Cooperative Extension positions, making it harder for Wisconsin’s farmers to get help they need from the UW-Extension.

Pointing out how Republican policies hurt people who live in small communities and rural areas is something I wish Democrats in Wisconsin and other states did much more often. However, unlike some other states, reaching out to rural voters is a necessity for Democrats to win statewide in Wisconsin for two reasons: Hard-partisan voters and the urban Democratic strongholds of the state don’t provide Democrats with enough votes to win statewide in Wisconsin, and suburban areas, outside of the heavily-Democratic suburbs around Madison, are some of the most Republican areas in the entire country. This is something that isn’t a necessity in, for example, my home state of Illinois, since the Chicago suburbs aren’t as staunchly Republican as the Milwaukee suburbs in Wisconsin are, so Illinois Democrats can win statewide with either an urban-suburban coalition or an urban-rural coalition, with most Illinois Democrats preferring the former, which, sadly, leaves rural voters in Illinois mostly ignored by Democrats. However, the urban-suburban coalition can’t be formed in Wisconsin, because the Milwaukee suburbs are the strongest of the GOP strongholds in Wisconsin, so it would take an urban-rural coalition for Democrats to win statewide in Wisconsin.

In short, Scott Walker proposed a budget that either would or would have cut funding to rural school districts, septic tank replacement programs, rural road maintenance, rural health care, local government property insurance, and university extension programs in Wisconsin. This would result, or would have resulted, in a lower quality of education for rural children, rural Wisconsinites having a harder time paying for septic system replacement, lower-quality rural roads, rural Wisconsinites having a harder time getting the health care they need, taxpayers having to pay more for insurance of local government property, and Wisconsin farmers having a harder time getting help from the UW-Extension. While Rob Brooks, a Republican member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from Saukville, has outright admitted that Walker proposed a “crap budget”, the Republicans who run the Wisconsin State Legislature intend to keep some of Walker’s budget cuts that will make life for rural Wisconsinites harder.