Whether it’s a phone call or a conversation across the kitchen table, experts willingly help farmers with anything from new market opportunities to farm transitions or profit planning to family conflict.
These professional and confidential services cost nothing for farm families through the Wisconsin Farm Center, a unique farm assistance program that proves the envy of other agricultural states. Since its establishment during the farm crisis of the 1980s, the center has helped thousands of farm families with business, economic and social needs.
“Over the years, the Farm Center has become much broader and expanded its programs and services to be proactive,” says Daniel Smith, administrator of the Division of Agricultural Development in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. This Division houses the Wisconsin Farm Center.
“While we still maintain the helpline and assist with crisis management, we have an array of programs that try to help farmers across the board with any opportunities or challenges they may face.”
The Wisconsin Farm Center’s initial focus 30 years ago helped farmers through the business and psychological struggles associated with the 1980s crash of the agricultural economy. Today, the center helps farmers through calm and crisis, whether it is the farm succession process, conflict mediation, production challenges or new market opportunities. Staff members help beginning and minority farmers, including the Hmong community, with risk management. And the center provides technical assistance to livestock and specialty crop farmers. The Farm Center averages 2,000 phone calls annually, a 10 percent increase from two years ago, Smith says. About half of the inquiries focus on farm transition issues, which includes transferring the farm to the next generation or an outside person.
Meanwhile, more farmers approach the center wanting to capture new market opportunities, such as organic farming. They also seek guidance with financial planning as margins tighten in 2016 for milk and grain production.
Staffed to Help
A team of eight division employees, along with about 20 volunteers, provides Farm Center services, whether that involves a five-minute phone conversation or years of periodic conversations at a farm family’s kitchen table. That relationship often continues after the situation is resolved.
“We have people who have kept in touch with us long after the case has been closed,” Smith says. “They let us know how things are going. You really build a personal relationship, and we take that very seriously. That is a very rewarding experience for our staff.”
Sue Bronson, owner of New Prospects, a mediation services company in Milwaukee, has volunteered professional mediation services to the Farm Center since 1989. In that role, she has served as a neutral party between farmers and government agencies, creditors and more.
In accordance with the Farm Center philosophy, the farmers whom Bronson helps ultimately make their own decisions.
“I love that people make their own decisions,” she says. “It’s not about telling people what to do. It’s about empowering people to be clear, to set their priorities and to balance what’s important to them so that they feel okay making an informed decision.”
Financially stressful farm situations, like the drought of 2012 or the milk price decline of 2009, often double the inquiries to the Farm Center. Yet Smith encourages more farm families to reach out in good financial times, too.
Frequently, Smith hears that farmers have intended to call the center for years. He reminds farmers that it takes just a quick, confidential first phone call for assistance. Then, the Wisconsin Farm Center staff can handle the footwork for the farmers on a variety of issues and accommodate a farmer’s schedule with follow-ups.
“Agriculture is always changing, and we’re here to help farmers navigate those changes,” Smith says.