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PATS ResearchReport No. 7

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Medium-sized, diversified, family-labor farms1 have long defined the structure of dairy farming in “America’s Dairyland.” The red barns, silos, farm houses, and fields of hay, grain, and pasture associated with these operations have given rise to the state’s distinctive pastoral landscapes. As family businesses these farms have been successful enough to provide their operators with “middle-class” standards of living. Nationally, in the 20th century, Wisconsin’s dairy sector produced more milk and especially more cheese than any other state in the U.S. Among Wisconsin residents, much cultural pride stems from the state’s preeminence in dairying — car license plates bear the motto “America’s Dairyland,” while sports fans are particularly infamous for donning foam “cheeseheads” to identify themselves as from Wisconsin. Over the last 50 years the dairy farm sector in Wisconsin has witnessed considerable changes in the size of their milking herds, use of production technologies and management practices, and mix of livestock and cropping enterprises. Despite these changes, most dairy farm operations have typically remained at a scale such that they are still operated and managed predominantly by farm household members. Indeed, until quite recently, Wisconsin only had a handful of large dairy farms that rely heavily on hired labor. At the same time, it has typically had fewer “very small” dairy farms typical of some other midwestern or southern states. The distinctive character of Wisconsin dairy farming has been attributed to the state’s unique political, cultural, and socioeconomic history (Gilbert and Akor, 1986).