By John McCracken
SUAMICO – Randy Styczynski inherited a few young calves from his grandparents when he was a junior at Green Bay Southwest High School in 1979.
His grandparents sold off their milking herd and Styczysnki began to purchase more cattle.
He took over operations and was milking a small head of eight dairy cows in the following spring.
Come early 2021, Styczynski is retiring as the last operating dairy farm in the Village of Suamico.
Citing stress, volatile milk prices and spotty weather, he has sold off his young stock and is slowly tapering the remaining herd of roughly 40 cows.
“I’m the last dairy farmer left,” Styczynski said.
Within the last year and a half, the fickle nature of the dairy industry and watching other small operations made him consider his options moving forward, which led to the decision to move away from dairy.
“I’m burnt out I guess,” Styczynski said.
To the best of his knowledge, he said the village had 17 operating dairy farms in 1979, with the largest operating 80 milking cows.
Rick Adamski, vice president and district eight director of Wisconsin Farmers Union, represents almost the entire eastern slice of the state, from Waukesha to Florence counties, including Brown and Door counties.
Adamski said the problem is production shifting to a few, larger operations and small farms aren’t able to compete financially, thus leading to a trend of consolidation across the state.
“(Consolidation) compromises our local community,” Adamski said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service released a July 2020 report highlighting the decline of small-herd farms in Wisconsin and other dairy states since the 1980s through 2019, nearly the entirety of Styczynski’s dairy timeline.
According to the USDA ERS, the number of licensed dairy herds fell by more than half between 2002 and 2019, with an accelerating rate of decline from 2018 to 2019, despite growing milk production.
The report also noted it’s a gradual process for dairy farmers to go out of business, otherwise known as farm exiting, along with the rate of consolidation.
The decline of small-sized farms has been a problem within the last 10 years, said Styczynski.
“They consolidate their land and consolidate their cattle and build brand new facilities, and they’re very efficient,” he said.
The 58-year-old Suamico native doesn’t have ill to speak about the process, but said he sees it as a sign of the times.
“It’s never gonna go backwards now,” Styczynski said.
Less farms, more cows
There are currently 20 concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in Brown County.
The county has the second highest number of CAFOs in the state, and each operates 1,000 or more animal units.
In 2019, CAFOs represented roughly 3.5 percent of Wisconsin dairy farms, but housed almost 25 percent of its dairy cows.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says Brown County has two final CAFO permits in the works, likely to be completed in 2021.
Farms submit a preliminary application to become CAFOs ahead of an inspection from the DNR.
Afterwards, a final application is needed to approve the permit.
Denmar Acres and Greenleaf Ledge Dairy are applying for permits with facilities located in the county’s unincorporated area of Greenleaf.
Another potential CAFO facility, Plum Pride Holsteins, LLC, also of Greenleaf, is in the midst of a preliminary application as of early December.
The wet summer of 2019 yielded harsh conditions for Styczynski’s crops.
He said he had trouble getting corn into and out of the ground due to the amount of rainfall, but he sees it as just another lump to take.
“Low prices and weather are just something to deal with,” he said.
Wisconsin’s volatile weather happens to every farmer, but doesn’t affect them all the same way.
Adamski said smaller farms tend to have less land to plant and less opportunities to work the land in order to recoup from harsh soil conditions that occur during wet years.
He said he’s seen less ambition from larger operations to farm the land, due to the labor needed and the necessity to haul equipment miles.
Instead, Adamski said they’ve turned to farming the government.
“It’s bothersome frankly,” he said. “They know they have subsidies coming their way and they’re very adept at knowing all the programs available. Small farmers, maybe not so much.”
When asked what Styczynski would like to see done differently at the state or county level, he talked about out-of-state milk passing his farm by.
Located off Interstate 41, Styczynski said he sees semi-trucks with sleeper cabs carrying milk up and down the interstate.
The sleeper cab is a dead giveaway for out-of-state milk, he said.
“It’s coming from Indiana, Michigan and as long as (cheese) plants can buy it for cheap, that’s where they’re going to get it from.” Styczynski said.
When farmers take a hit from low milk prices, or even when the prices are above average, consumers don’t see this reflected in the price tag, he said.
Styczynski said even with good prices like this past summer, it’s the times between good prices that have led him to cease his operations.
“You learn to deal with prices going up and down,” Styczynski said. “You just go with the ride.”
Styczynski said he’s keeping his options open for now, while settling affairs on the farmstead as winter approaches.
With Penny, his trusty chipper red heeler cattle dog by his side, he said he plans to continue farming the land and making hay, even with no cattle for his companion to herd.