A Family Farmer Describes Increasing Challenges

A Family Farmer Describes Increasing Challenges

The Shafer Family

Watch a clip of John Shafer’s interview HERE.

Farmer John Shafer is a rare breed.  Along with his wife, Jenny, and young daughter, they live on a 4th generation, small farm in Spring Valley.  John spoke with us while he completed his morning chores.  He fed a calf a bottle, cleaned and operated various pieces of machinery, and let the cows out into the pasture.  He had stories about many of the dozen or so half-wild cats peeking out from behind walls and bales of hay.  We followed John as he explained that his property has been passed down from generation to generation, beginning with his great-grandfather who bought the land in 1915.  In a few short years, the Shafer’s land will be deemed a “Century Farm”.  This recognition both inspires and taunts John.  He not only is struggling to hold onto his farm in the face of corporate interests, but he also wonders how his children will be able to continue this fading way of life.  

 Here’s his story.


How will Walker’s policies affect your dairy farm?

The biggest thing that I am scared of is the shifting of taxes from the upper class to the lower and middle class.  That is what really bothers me.  There was no tax cuts for us, it was all to the rich, and it shifted the burden onto us.

It also bothered me that they put in that legislation that they could sell state-owned property with no bids.  Well, that kind of hit home for me, because I bought a haybine from the college [University of Wisconsin – River Falls] and I had to make a bid on it along with everybody else.  I was surprised that I won the bid because I only paid $2300 for it, but everyone else was bidding only $200-$300 for it.  Well, Walker is trying to make it so The Kochs, or whoever, don’t have to pay fair market value for state property. [Because UWRF is a state owned institution, Walker’s policies could allow a corporate farm to purchase this piece of equipment with a no-bid contract at a much lower price.]

Another thing that bothers me is that there are a lot of farmers on BadgerCare, because most farmers cannot afford to get regular insurance.  One neighbor lost his BadgerCare and he got into an accident and his ear got partially cut off.  The ambulance people were saying, “You gotta go to the hospital.”  And he said, “Just stitch me up here, I don’t have insurance.”

Then, there is the program on the chopping block called PACE (Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements). Walker is basically saying that we need to develop more land.  (It could affect me because) I want to find ways to preserve my land for the next generation.  And if we have continued urban sprawl, then there is no other options for small farmers than to sell.  My great-grandfather bought this back in 1915.  So, that has kinda given me the urge to try to stick this out.  But it is a lot of work, and all people, like me, are asking for is a chance, and to make a reasonable profit.  We’re not asking to be millionaires, but we’ve been lied to.

I support Shelly Moore because she didn’t sell herself out to agribusiness.  Sheila Harsdorf did.  Ten years ago there was a bill that was being tried in the state legislature that was called “The Family Farm Protection Act.”  Sheila Harsdorf, instead of supporting family farms and standing up for family farms and for this bill, stood by agribusiness.  When I heard her do that, I thought – she is not there for the family farmer.

Some people support Sen. Harsdorf for social issues such as being Pro-Life.  And I’ve said to people, “Harsdorf is not Pro-Life, the Republican Party is not Pro-Life…they are Pro-Birth.”  If they were truly Pro-Life they would be interested in feeding the child, clothing the child, educating the child, providing health care for the child.  That’s what it should mean to be Pro-Life.

I’m not pro-life, I’m not pro-choice.

(The problem for farmers is that the) Pro-Choice groups will say, something “is not alive until it takes its first breath.”  Well I’ve had to deliver a calf because the mother is having complications.  I’ve had to put on a long glove and reach inside to help.  I’ve had a calf suck my fingers.  You will have a hard time explaining to farmers that (the calf) is not alive.

You have said that you are looking for ways to be able to pass this farm down to future generations.  What will enable you to do that John?

 That’s a very good question, and I don’t know what all the answers are.  It does not help when Gov. Walker and Sen. Harsdorf have given government tax money to all these corporate farms.  They are giving million dollar grants, not loans, grants – for people to expand into these mega-farms.  I’m too small of an operation to qualify for any of these programs.  Plus, Spring Valley used to have 2 feed mills, but now they’ve been forced out of business because there is no farmers to patronize.  Corporate farms don’t spend local, they buy bulk elsewhere.

(If corporate farms are in financial trouble) they are told to just file bankruptcy.  A lot of these huge factory farms have 3 or 4 different corporations within them.  One owns the cattle, one owns the machinery, one owns the real estate, and sometimes one owns the buildings.  But there is one farmer who owns 26 different of these things.  The only reason I can stay in farming is because this has been passed from one generation to the next.  Some young man or woman who wanted to start farming – there is no way they could afford it.  There is no way they could even think about starting something like this.

I hope the next generation, my children’s generation, can take over, but they are going to need help.  They’re going to have to hope that the progressives and the Democrats actually stand up and help the “little guys” out.  I’m not just talking about farming communities – I’m talking all areas of labor.  I need help modernizing my facilities….a parlor would be nice…newer equipment would be nice.  My newest tractor is 23-years-old.

So, big corporate farms are given grants and also given ways to modernize their equipment and small farmers are not.  Why do you think that is?

There is powerful influence by agribusiness.  There are groups pretending to be farm groups when they are really masquerading as agribusiness like The Dairy Business Association, The Farm Bureau, and The National Corn Growers Association.  Their opposite groups are pro-farmer, like WI Farmer’s Union and The American Corn Growers Association, and oppose Gov. Walker’s awful legislation.  When you have media that is owned by big business and agribusiness you only hear one side of the story.  They were telling farmers like me that producing ethanol from the corn was going to be great for the farmers.  I was one of the guys who thought that ethanol was maybe not one of the best ideas… because you are taking food out of the food chain and turning it into fuel and it may not be one of the most efficient ways to make fuel.

Some of the farm cooperatives are afraid of challenging big business; sometimes I think it is the fear of retaliation.  Some of the creameries wanted to restrict BHT hormone coming into their food.  (They were) threatened with lawsuits if farmers weren’t allowed to use hormones.

Sometimes I am afraid of speaking out, because I have a family now that I’ve got to worry about.  But I’ve got to say something, because all sides need to be heard. This is a culture that is worth preserving.  My biggest fear is that if all small farms disappear in the next 5-10 years, we are going to see price gouging at the grocery stores that none of us will even imagine.

What would you need for your farm to survive long-term?

Stable milk prices.  Supply control.  Paying what it costs to make milk plus a little profit to keep our equipment working and get some hired help.  Plus, food safety issues (need to be considered).

We need to have a fair price and a fair wage – something that keeps up with the pace of inflation…so we can buy new equipment and have time with our families.  We’re not asking to be multi-millionaires.

Small family farmers are afraid of failing, so we are concerned with sustainability.  Some of the big corporate farmers can just walk away.

It sounds like you are saying that there needs to be some kind of balance between government intervention and absolute free market.  Would that be a fair statement?

 That is very fair.  Just as I told two Walker supporters in the community, there has to be a balance between union interests and interests of the corporation.  But it doesn’t make sense to me that you can be upset if you think unions threaten people but it is ok for corporations and rich people to threaten to leave the state.  It can’t be that way.  Everybody has to give and take a little bit.  But the last 30 years one group has had to give too much.  And what has it done for us?  It hasn’t done any good.  I fear for my daughter’s future.  She’s a very bright young lady, but if we keep gutting everything there isn’t going to be a future for her or any child.


All four of my grandparents grew up on farms, but only one couple continued that lifestyle as adults.  That couple had 6 children, of which only two continued farming.  I grew up on one of those small family farms.  Now, there isn’t a farmer left among us.  As I followed John around amidst the familiar smells of fresh hay and the thin layer of brown dust that settles quietly on every surface, I understood his dilemma.  Does he continue to struggle for a treasured way of life that is deeply embedded in his lineage?  Or does he succumb to mounting pressure and begin a new chapter for his family?  Wisconsinites have to ponder the same question.  But for today, John is speaking out for this Wisconsintradition, “I hope the next generation, my children’s generation, can take over, but they are going to need help…This is a culture that is worth preserving.” 

6 Responsesto “A Family Farmer Describes Increasing Challenges”

  1. Celeste says:

    “. . . county and environmental officials are alarmed at two items in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 budget proposal that would lead to fewer county-level conservation agents . . . on the ground to respond to emergency runoff situations and less state funding to encourage farmers to participate voluntarily in conservation programs.

    ‘These efforts are locally led and they’re getting whacked,’ says Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association. ‘Farmers don’t want to have runoff problems, but they often get caught in a bind. You need local people who have relationships with them to respond to these local problems.’

    Specifically, the governor’s budget proposal reduces funds for two programs in the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Agriculture Resource Management Division.

    VandenBrook’s association is particularly concerned that Walker’s proposal retains a $1.3 million cut that went into effect in the 2011-13 budget cycle for county land conservation departments.

    The counties had been receiving $9.3 million annually through 2009-2011 as part of the department’s budget; they now receive $8 million annually. Keeping funding at that level could lead to county conservation staffers losing jobs across the state, VandenBrook says.

    Additionally, Walker is recommending DATCP’s budget for soil and water resource management be cut by 50 percent, from $10 million to $5 million over the two-year budget.

    This fund provides farmers with money for so-called ‘soft projects,’ which include nutrient management and crop rotation programs, both of which help maintain quality soil and reduce runoff.

    . . . . the governor is recommending $7 million in general obligation bonds through segregated funds for counties to implement land and water resource management plans.

    VandenBrook, however, stresses that the $7 million in bonds and proposed $5 million for the so-called soft projects related to conservation efforts can’t be used to pay for the same things.

    The bond program can only pay for physical structures, like a concrete manure storage bin or digester, while the other pot of money can be used for implementing crop rotation and nutrient management programs.

    The latter proves the most effective at preventing soil erosion and runoff issues, VandenBrook says, noting that the 2011 Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts report shows that soil erosion rates had been on the decline for the past decade but are rising again.

    ‘The changes that have happened since the 1990s haven’t happened because of climate change but because of land-use changes,’ VandenBrook said. ‘At a time when we have budget cuts, we have greater resource challenges.’

    Groups like the River Alliance of Wisconsin see the latest round of cuts to land and water conservation efforts as part of a trend that must be stopped because of the negative effects on waterways around the state.

    ‘It’s the death by a thousand cuts to our farm conservation efforts,’ says Helen Sarakinos, the River Alliance’s water policy program director. ‘The harm it will cause will be more phosphorus, more sediment and more (manure) ending up back in our waters.’

    She says farmland conservation is a very labor-intensive issue that requires people who understand the problems, know where to look for very specific money sources, and can negotiate best practices with the farmers.

    ‘What the county-level conservation staffers do is classic boots-on-the-ground conservation,’ Sarakinos says. ‘In the end, a lot of these practices are helping farmers protect the resources they rely on. It is helping them produce in terms of their crops and it’s helping them make money on their farms. And even that doesn’t seem to resonate with this current administration.’

    Critics of the proposed cuts find it troubling that the administration is suggesting fewer dollars go to county staffs at a time when they will soon be tasked with doing more.

    Under state law, DATCP is responsible for developing conservation practices to meet the DNR’s performance standards for farms. For that reason, DATCP is currently updating its rules for implementing the agricultural runoff control standards adopted by the DNR in 2011.

    According to DATCP’s own fiscal estimate, an additional 40 county land conservation staffers will be needed statewide to achieve compliance with DNR standards.

    The additional staff will cost between $2.2 million and $2.6 million per year, according to the fiscal estimate. But Walker is proposing to add no more staffing money in that budget.

    ‘It’s a recipe for disaster,’ Sarakinos said. ‘They are asking these same county staff to do more than they are already doing, with less.’

    DATCP will hold five public hearings on the proposed changes, spokesman Dick said. A hearing will be held from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, April 4, in the State Agriculture Building, Room 106, located at 2811 Agriculture Drive in Madison.”

    See: Farmland conservation efforts take double hit in Walker budget, 3/23/2013, Cap Times at http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/writers/jessica_vanegeren/farmland-conservation-efforts-take-double-hit-in-walker-budget/article_f07a214a-9195-11e2-ae76-0019bb2963f4.html

  2. A very complex problem where there are no easy answers. John offers suggestions such as price fixing, "stable milk prices", being "paid what it takes to make milk plus a extra profit." Both very noble ideas but very practical. What constitutes a fair pric says:

    A very complex problem where there are no easy answers. John offers suggestions such as price fixing, “stable milk prices”, being “paid what it takes to make milk plus a extra profit.” Both very noble ideas but very practical. What constitutes a fair price or profit? Is it 10% more, 20% more??? What if one farmer runs his or her in a much more efficient way than another famer, does the farmer who doesn’t run their farm efficiently get paid the same as someone that does? To keep the “family farm” around do we jeopardize the future of all farms by allowing outside competition, outside the U.S., to become “better” at producing farm products at a better price? Do we stick with the family farms, and their less efficient way of production and risk falling behind the rest of the world in producing farm products more efficiently and at a lower cost? It seems to me every inductry, wheter it produces farm products, automobiles, clothes, medicine or what ever, is in a different position than it was 20, 30 or 50 years ago. After being involved with the auto, pharma, health care and farming industries I see a great deal of similar issues. Within each of these indusries there are those that struggle with change. Yet there is a need for this change. It may seem wrong to some to give up the “way it has always been done” but this will always be. Those that accept the change and adopt more quickly to a more efficient way of production supplies their customers with a good product a beeter price. Those that don’t embrace change will soon be left behind. I am not saying this is a good thing I am merely stating the facts. Examples exist all around us. I can remember when it took 100’s of men to produce an automobile….now it takes only a few people and 100’s of machines and if that isn’t bad enough the auto’s these machines produce are much better made in part due to the lack of human mistakes. We can all remember the American made auto that kept the car garages in business as well as the body shops, replacing the premature rusting panels. Then change came from companies, unfortunately this time from outside the US, that used machines to build cars, bringing down the cost as well as delivering a much more dependable vehicle getting 100,000 miles before it’s first tune-up is needed. This is only one example of change that came and those who refused to adopt it, GM, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors, almost lost everything. Those who embraced it benefited greatly, (I dare you to look at 3 autos on the road today and find more than one made by an American manufacturer. Yes as I said earlier change is hard but you see it coming and there isn’t anyone of us can do to stop it. I lost 3 jobs because of change before I finally decided to not fight it any longer and instead to embrace it and find a way to use it to my advantage. It took a while…actually way to long but it happened and my Graet-grandfathers farm is now part of a larger group of farms. They are bigger operate more efficiently producing 100’s of times more product than I could and providing the world with food at a much lower price. I’ll grant you it still seems to me that it’s not right but it’s still coming and none of us can stop it. Terry Franzel

  3. Thanks for a look into the truth about Walkers/Harsdorfs effect on the WI farmers and their familys.

  4. Lynne says:

    When it suited her political needs, Shelly Moore had this to say
    about her School Districts policy that says it is wrong for an employee to use school email for political purposes…. “I don’t frankly care.”


    Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/state_and_regional/article_471aafba-8b55-5559-a0aa-bf0a2350a066.html?mode=comments#ixzz1TFBgCHvy

  5. Hiroshi Kanno says:

    A very moving and accurate account of what family farmers face in WI. Another threat to family farmers is the increasing number of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)that have over 1000 dairy cows in small confined areas. With over 160 CAFOs now in our state and 50 more approved we will see more family farmers leaving their land. They cannot compete against these giants. Residents near these CAFOs also suffer from air pollution to groundwater contamination. Many employees at these CAFOs are not native Wisconsinites. Family farmers like John will not survive to pass on their farms to their children unless we take steps to control these CAFOs.

  6. A very compelling story. Thank you, Heidi!


  1. Harsdorf is not a friend to Wisconsin Family farmers | Defend Wisconsin - [...] Family farmer John Shafer speaks out on why Sheila Harsdorf is not a friend to Wisconsin Family farmers. Video…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *