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Married to the farm

Feeding the world is an example of a good deed that’s sometimes punished, but it takes more than that to discourage farm families.

(page 2 of 2)

Techno farming

Tina Hinchley’s newspaper ad was a special way to find the man that would let her work beside him. She didn’t want to be the farm wife that raised the kids, kept the house clean, and cooked the meals. She wanted to be in the barn working with her children in tow “and making it all work together.”

Duane, Anna, and Tina Hinchley represent the current and next-generation operators of Hinchley’s Dairy Farm.

For the past 21 years, she and Duane have done just that. This year, in fact, thanks to the use of a fungicide, and barring a damaging weather event or an early frost, they anticipate a bumper crop of corn, which is used for feed and ethanol. They have high hopes for a strong crop of wheat, but they are keeping their fingers crossed with soybeans. Summing up the situation in late July, during a week in which two weather events produced five inches of rain, Duane Hinchley marveled at how good his corn crop looked, but lamented the fact his soybeans “don’t like wet feet.”

The Hinchleys have taken steps to mitigate any damage from above-normal precipitation. “We have a lot of drain tile installed in the soil and ditches to take care of the excess water,” he notes. Not that he wants the water completely shut off, but at that point he acknowledged that two weeks of dry weather would be a blessing for everyone.

So would a little bit more understanding of how farms actually operate. With the farm labor situation getting to a critical point, Tina does most of the milking. The Hinchleys don’t rely on migrant labor, but sometimes they call on friends willing to work part-time. “You can probably plant crops with just your family but when it gets to fall, you need a couple of bodies to help you for two or three months,” Duane says. “It’s getting terrible.”

At the 4:30 a.m. milking — a true test of devotion to be sure — Tina has been stood up by several would-be laborers, even those who swore they were dependable. Of the Hinchley’s four children, daughter Anna, a student at UW–Madison, is the most likely to run the farm someday. For now, they mostly rely on high school and college students and Tina tries to inspire them to get involved in Future Farmers of America. “They might not be open to farming but may be open to being involved in other parts of agriculture,” she says. “When it comes to agriculture journalism, telling stories, or agricultural mechanics, there are so many opportunities for kids. If they don’t know that it’s available for them, they end up going into other fields.”

Another alternative for milking is the use of robots. “A robot can handle 60 to 65 cows, and right now we’re milking about 130,” she notes. “It would double the herd, so that it would accommodate her [Anna’s] future. It’s not going to take away all of your labor needs but we can focus on other things instead of me having to personally milk cows six hours a day.”

Recruiting human beings would be easier if not for what Tina considers a needless controversy over the docking (shortening] of cow tails, which was done to prevent urine and manure from getting on the animal. Thanks to public pressure, the Hinchley’s milk processor no longer accepts milk from farms that tail dock their herd, and she blames animal rights propaganda and pressure. One video suggested that docking is done with garden shears, when it’s actually done by a common, bloodless procedure — elastration — used on cattle. For sanitary reasons, she predicted a ban on tail docking would result in higher antibiotic use, which is cost prohibitive for many, but it also will impact labor.

“We hire people [to milk] and those tails come back,” she notes, “and having a cow’s tail soaked in urine wrapped around your neck is not going to make you want to work on a farm.”

While robotic milking holds a great deal of promise for farm productivity, technology is already at play when planting crops. Infrared technology can tell farmers how healthy their crops are from satellite imagery, and vendor partners can map farm fields to the point where less is planted in certain areas because the soil will not support it. In his combine, Duane Hinchley has a GPS system with a field monitor that determines how much to plant and where. “Precision planting,” he says, “has been a great thing.”

Farm bill comes due

These are not the best days to run a farm profitably. After reaching healthy levels in 2014, commodity and milk prices have been below the break-even point since, which translates into declining farm income. Labor is hard to come by, and restrictive immigration policies aren’t rolling out the welcome mat for migrant workers.

Brenda Kluesner, a loan officer and crop insurance manager for Royal Bank in Cassville, Wis., has seen the problems first hand. Three years ago, corn would fetch $4 to $5 per bushel but now farmers are lucky to get $3.50. Milk prices soared to $24 per hundredweight, but soon collapsed to as low as $14 before inching back up. Most of the reasons — a Chinese pull back on purchasing, and a global glut aided by the lifting of European production limits — are beyond an American farmer’s control.

With any luck, the same can’t be said of getting Congress to act on agricultural legislation. Kluesner recently testified before Congress on what she’d like to see in a new farm bill, but two things stand out — an increase in loan program limits to $2.5 million from the current $1.4 million, and protecting the crop insurance program from attempts to weaken it.

As Kluesner explains, Farm Services Agency loan guarantees allow lenders to offer long-term, fixed-rate financing to farmers, giving them stable loan repayments and helping young farmers get on their feet.

The crop insurance program helps farmers recover from weather-related catastrophes, but since the government subsidizes part of it, budget cuts are a possibility. Without the program’s subsidies, private crop insurance would be unaffordable for most farmers.

“By keeping a strong crop insurance policy, it enables producers to stay farming during bad-weather catastrophes,” Kluesner says. “It also allows them to repay their loans and remain solvent.”

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