How well have Wisconsin farmers weathered the downturn?

There was a scramble for extra chairs to provide seats for most of the 150 or so people who showed up for the 3rd annual Wisconain Agricultural Economic Outlook Forum. That doesn’t count 67 online connections to the webcast, at least half of dozen of which were organized viewings at county UW-Extension offices. It also doesn’t count the hundeds of viewers nationwide who will tune into the two episodes of Market-to-Market (the Iowa Public Television agribusiness news show) that were taped in conjunction with the outlook forum. The episodes focused on the dairy sector. Emeritus professor Bob Cropp (on the monitor in the photo at left) was on the show’s panel of experts.

Presenters at the forum were the authors of articles in the 2010 edition of Status of Wisconsin Agriculture, which produced by the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics under the guidance of emeritus professor Ed Jesse. The report is available online at the AAE website. Some details are available in this press release.

The forum was hosted by CALS and UW-Extension Cooperative Extension and led by CALS associate dean John Shutske. Arla Dauscher, outreach specialist in CALS Dean’s office, handled the arrangements and publicity and deserves credit for the event’s success.

Here are a few observations made by some of the presenters on Wednesday.

In terms of regional dairy competitiveness, the pendulum may be swinging back toward the midwest, noted dairy specialists Bob Cropp and Brian Gould. That has to do with the fact that farmers here are paid more for their milk than are counterparts in the west and southwest, and they are more likely to produce, rathe than buy, the crops they feed to their cattle (a big advantage in an era of high feed prices).

More corn was purchased for industrial use than for feed use in 2009. This is the first year that has happened. Much of the growth in industrial use (which includes food products) has to do with ethanol production. The demand for corn for ethanol today equals the volume that went to all industrial uses four years ago. But the demand for corn for ethanol is about to flatten out. something that happens with all new products eventually, predicts grain marketing specialist Randy Fortenberry.

Cranberry growers had a good year, but it came at a price. “What they gained in yield, they lost in sleep.” Horticulture professor Jed Colqhoun, noting that growers had to battle some nasty weather, including frosts into June.

Agricultural exports create 50,00 jobs in Wisconsin, according to an analysis by economist Steve Deller on the impact of the fast-growing non-domestic market for the state’s farm products. The flip side of that: When the export market dries up, it hurts. Much of the $1.8 billion drop in Wisconsin cash farm receipts in 2009 vs. 2008 can be traced to a steep fall off in overseas purchases of the state’s dairy products.

Although all producers have been affected by the economic downturn, a relatively small number are in danger of going out of business as a result, says Paul Dietmann, Director of the Bureau of Farm and Rural Services at DATCP. Those most vulnerable are victims of bad timing — they started up or expanded ano operation in the past two years, or lost an off-farm job, of faced significant weather challenges (a multi-year drought in the north, two years of flooding in the south) in 2007 and 2008.