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.”