As the Feltman brothers talk about the state of the dairy farming, they remember how different Carver County looked during their childhood, populated with dairy farms.
“There used to be so many of them when we were young,” said Chad Feltman.
His brother, Chris, added, “It used to be you went down the road and if you’d see a silo, they had milk cows.”
The Feltmans own a fourth-generation dairy farm alongside their parents, milking more than 200 cows and farming more than 500 acres of land. They are Carver County’s Farm Family of the Year, according to Colleen Carlson, a University of Minnesota Extension educator. And they are learning how to grow their business with low milk prices and low commodity prices.
For the three brothers, the business of farming is different than it had been for the generations before them. They, along with other Carver County farmers, face a host of factors — including a two-week weather delay on planting corn and soybeans — making for a stressful situation.
Carver County farmers are now sitting on piles of the same crops, due to a lack of international demand from changes in trade. Subsidies, several Carver County farmers said for this story, are just helping farmers break even.
“With that being said, we are the garden spot of the state in crop production right now,” Carlson said. “We’re looking better in this area than most parts of the state.”
The University of Minnesota Extension released data in March showing median net farm income dropped to $26,055 in 2018. Dale Nordquist, with the Center for Farm Financial Management, said it possibly made 2018 the lowest income year since the early 1980s.
“So, in the last half of 2019,” Carlson said, “farmers are looking at the bills that they have to pay, which include second-half land rent payments and property taxes. And they’re counting on selling corn and soybeans for commodity and possibly livestock to cover those expenses.
“And they’re looking at lower than average prices for all of that.”
Mike Buckentine is a crop farmer out in Chaska, who says farming stress is palpable in the community.
“I don’t know if I’d call it mental health — I’d call it morale,” he said. “So many farmers seem defeated. You can tell a lot of them are having a hard time going out to work every day because you’re basically working to lose money right now. And the whole hope that things will turn around is what keeps them going.”
He said he’s known many who have quit the industry, went to look for other jobs or retired early. Buckentine also touched on the differences in cost and income over farming generations. He said:
- In 1951, the price of a bushel of wheat was $2.30, compared to $2.80 in 2017.
- In the 1950s, combines had a price tag of $9,000. Today, they cost between $400,000 to $500,000.
Farming families are looking at higher deductibles for their insurance, Carlson said. Some family members have taken other part-time and full-time jobs to aid with insurance and household expenses.
“Farmers are great at tightening their belts.” she said. “They have learned to live with less.”
Efficiencies, diversification of income, and innovative management are resources she says bolster farmers through this period. The extension’s report on Minnesota farming profits also says not all operations struggled, thanks to precise management, timing and luck.
For Farmer Eric Hoese in Mayer, adding a robotic feeding system and doubling the size of his farm improved his cash flow.
“The way I looked at it when I got done with school, and with my dad on board, is that we have to constantly improve to stay relevant and profitable. It takes money to invest, but we feel there’s payoff in what we do," he said.
Hoese wants to encourage more young people to enter the lifestyle of dairy farming. In today’s world, with people more likely to be a few generations removed from a farm, the larger public may not have a close friend or relative who farms for a living.
“We’re trying to feed people,” Hoese said. “We’re trying to do the best we can.”
Carlson encourages farmers to reach out to the University of Minnesota Agriculture Rapid Response line, where they can get a free consultation looking at their enterprises and financial statements.
As the interview with Carlson wrapped up, she had a final comment she wanted to add for farmers in Carver County.
“We’ve weathered storms like this before,” she said. “We need to work together to stay resilient in this challenging economy.”