Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Struggling small dairy farmers in swing state Wisconsin could help determine the presidential election

Small dairy farmers everywhere are struggling, but in Wisconsin the pain is particularly acute because the industry makes up such a large part of the state's economy. That could hurt President Trump in November, since Wisconsin is a swing state, Dan Kaufman reports for The New Yorker.

Kaufman paints a grim picture: "Five years ago, the price of milk fell precipitously, accelerating the long unravelling of rural Wisconsin. Since 2010, the population in two-thirds of the state’s rural counties has decreased, leading to a shrinking workforce, fewer jobs and businesses, and slower income growth rates than in metro counties. More than 70 rural schools have closed, and for the past three years the state has led the country in family-farm bankruptcies."

Many banks have stopped loaning dairy farmers money, Angie Sullivan of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, told Kaufman. And Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue offered little hope for small dairy farmers in a town hall at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last October, saying that "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out," Kaufman notes.

Over the past decade, about half the dairy farms in Wisconsin went bankrupt; today there are about 7,000. "Yet the number of cows has remained constant, because of consolidation and the proliferation of factory dairy farms, some of which have herds of more than 5,000 cows," Kaufman reports.

Rural voters in Wisconsin and other battleground states proved decisive in 2016. Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes, and got nearly two-thirds of the vote in rural areas. "The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the largest shift in voting between Obama’s seven-point victory in Wisconsin, in 2012, and Trump’s one-point win came in communities that cast fewer than a thousand votes," Kaufman reports. But numerous polls show that Trump's support is down in such areas, and rural voters moved to the left in the Wisconsin primary.

One dairy farmer Kaufman interviewed, Jerry Volenec, said he voted for Obama in 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. He says he now regrets that vote: "If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him."

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