Editor’s Pick
JULY 21, 2011 11:01AM

WI Voices: A Family Farmer

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The Shafer Family


Watch a clip of John Shafer’s interview here.


Farmer John Shafer is a rare breed.  Along with his wife, Jenny, and young daughter, they live on a 4th generation, small farm in Spring Valley.  John spoke with us while he completed his morning chores.  He fed a calf a bottle, cleaned and operated various pieces of machinery, and let the cows out into the pasture.  He had stories about many of the dozen or so half-wild cats peeking out from behind walls and bales of hay.  We followed John as he explained that his property has been passed down from generation to generation, beginning with his great-grandfather who bought the land in 1915.  In a few short years, the Shafer’s land will be deemed a “Century Farm”.  This recognition both inspires and taunts John.  He not only is struggling to hold onto his farm in the face of corporate interests, but he also wonders how his children will be able to continue this fading way of life.  

 Here’s his story.


How will Walker’s policies affect your dairy farm?

The biggest thing that I am scared of is the shifting of taxes from the upper class to the lower and middle class.  That is what really bothers me.  There was no tax cuts for us, it was all to the rich, and it shifted the burden onto us. 

It also bothered me that they put in that legislation that they could sell state-owned property with no bids.  Well, that kind of hit home for me, because I bought a haybine from the college [University of Wisconsin - River Falls] and I had to make a bid on it along with everybody else.  I was surprised that I won the bid because I only paid $2300 for it, but everyone else was bidding only $200-$300 for it.  Well, Walker is trying to make it so The Kochs, or whoever, don’t have to pay fair market value for state property. [Because UWRF is a state owned institution, Walker’s policies could allow a corporate farm to purchase this piece of equipment with a no-bid contract at a much lower price.]

Another thing that bothers me is that there are a lot of farmers on BadgerCare, because most farmers cannot afford to get regular insurance.  One neighbor lost his BadgerCare and he got into an accident and his ear got partially cut off.  The ambulance people were saying, “You gotta go to the hospital.”  And he said, “Just stitch me up here, I don’t have insurance.”

Then, there is the program on the chopping block called PACE (Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements). Walker is basically saying that we need to develop more land.  (It could affect me because) I want to find ways to preserve my land for the next generation.  And if we have continued urban sprawl, then there is no other options for small farmers than to sell.  My great-grandfather bought this back in 1915.  So, that has kinda given me the urge to try to stick this out.  But it is a lot of work, and all people, like me, are asking for is a chance, and to make a reasonable profit.  We’re not asking to be millionaires, but we’ve been lied to. 

I support Shelly Moore because she didn’t sell herself out to agribusiness.  Sheila Harsdorf did.  Ten years ago there was a bill that was being tried in the state legislature that was called “The Family Farm Protection Act.”  Sheila Harsdorf, instead of supporting family farms and standing up for family farms and for this bill, stood by agribusiness.  When I heard her do that, I thought – she is not there for the family farmer.

Some people support Sen. Harsdorf for social issues such as being Pro-Life.  And I’ve said to people, “Harsdorf is not Pro-Life, the Republican Party is not Pro-Life…they are Pro-Birth.”  If they were truly Pro-Life they would be interested in feeding the child, clothing the child, educating the child, providing health care for the child.  That’s what it should mean to be Pro-Life.

I’m not pro-life, I’m not pro-choice. 

(The problem for farmers is that the) Pro-Choice groups will say, something “is not alive until it takes its first breath.”  Well I’ve had to deliver a calf because the mother is having complications.  I’ve had to put on a long glove and reach inside to help.  I’ve had a calf suck my fingers.  You will have a hard time explaining to farmers that (the calf) is not alive. 

You have said that you are looking for ways to be able to pass this farm down to future generations.  What will enable you to do that John?

 That’s a very good question, and I don’t know what all the answers are.  It does not help when Gov. Walker and Sen. Harsdorf have given government tax money to all these corporate farms.  They are giving million dollar grants, not loans, grants – for people to expand into these mega-farms.  I’m too small of an operation to qualify for any of these programs.  Plus, Spring Valley used to have 2 feed mills, but now they’ve been forced out of business because there is no farmers to patronize.  Corporate farms don’t spend local, they buy bulk elsewhere.

(If corporate farms are in financial trouble) they are told to just file bankruptcy.  A lot of these huge factory farms have 3 or 4 different corporations within them.  One owns the cattle, one owns the machinery, one owns the real estate, and sometimes one owns the buildings.  But there is one farmer who owns 26 different of these things.  The only reason I can stay in farming is because this has been passed from one generation to the next.  Some young man or woman who wanted to start farming – there is no way they could afford it.  There is no way they could even think about starting something like this.

I hope the next generation, my children’s generation, can take over, but they are going to need help.  They’re going to have to hope that the progressives and the Democrats actually stand up and help the “little guys” out.  I’m not just talking about farming communities – I’m talking all areas of labor.  I need help modernizing my facilities….a parlor would be nice…newer equipment would be nice.  My newest tractor is 23-years-old. 

So, big corporate farms are given grants and also given ways to modernize their equipment and small farmers are not.  Why do you think that is?

There is powerful influence by agribusiness.  There are groups pretending to be farm groups when they are really masquerading as agribusiness like The Dairy Business Association, The Farm Bureau, and The National Corn Growers Association.  Their opposite groups are pro-farmer, like WI Farmer’s Union and The American Corn Growers Association, and oppose Gov. Walker’s awful legislation.  When you have media that is owned by big business and agribusiness you only hear one side of the story.  They were telling farmers like me that producing ethanol from the corn was going to be great for the farmers.  I was one of the guys who thought that ethanol was maybe not one of the best ideas… because you are taking food out of the food chain and turning it into fuel and it may not be one of the most efficient ways to make fuel. 

Some of the farm cooperatives are afraid of challenging big business; sometimes I think it is the fear of retaliation.  Some of the creameries wanted to restrict BHT hormone coming into their food.  (They were) threatened with lawsuits if farmers weren’t allowed to use hormones.

Sometimes I am afraid of speaking out, because I have a family now that I’ve got to worry about.  But I’ve got to say something, because all sides need to be heard. This is a culture that is worth preserving.  My biggest fear is that if all small farms disappear in the next 5-10 years, we are going to see price gouging at the grocery stores that none of us will even imagine. 

What would you need for your farm to survive long-term?

Stable milk prices.  Supply control.  Paying what it costs to make milk plus a little profit to keep our equipment working and get some hired help.  Plus, food safety issues (need to be considered). 

We need to have a fair price and a fair wage – something that keeps up with the pace of inflation…so we can buy new equipment and have time with our families.  We’re not asking to be multi-millionaires.

Small family farmers are afraid of failing, so we are concerned with sustainability.  Some of the big corporate farmers can just walk away. 

It sounds like you are saying that there needs to be some kind of balance between government intervention and absolute free market.  Would that be a fair statement?

 That is very fair.  Just as I told two Walker supporters in the community, there has to be a balance between union interests and interests of the corporation.  But it doesn’t make sense to me that you can be upset if you think unions threaten people but it is ok for corporations and rich people to threaten to leave the state.  It can’t be that way.  Everybody has to give and take a little bit.  But the last 30 years one group has had to give too much.  And what has it done for us?  It hasn’t done any good.  I fear for my daughter’s future.  She’s a very bright young lady, but if we keep gutting everything there isn’t going to be a future for her or any child.


All four of my grandparents grew up on farms, but only one couple continued that lifestyle as adults.  That couple had 6 children, of which only two continued farming.  I grew up on one of those small family farms.  Now, there isn’t a farmer left among us.  As I followed John around amidst the familiar smells of fresh hay and the thin layer of brown dust that settles quietly on every surface, I understood his dilemma.  Does he continue to struggle for a treasured way of life that is deeply embedded in his lineage?  Or does he succumb to mounting pressure and begin a new chapter for his family?  Wisconsinites have to ponder the same question.  But for today, John is speaking out for this Wisconsin tradition, ”I hope the next generation, my children’s generation, can take over, but they are going to need help…This is a culture that is worth preserving.” 


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What a great salute Heidi. No farms no food.
If only the gov't does something right for once.
Love your interviews, Heidi. It's like being part of a larger community and just dropping in on folks to hear what they have to say about things that matter.
More great insight from the heartland!
I have spent my entire adult life as "pro-choice"--even writing my Masters thesis on the philosophical and constitutional aspects of it. But I have never come up with as humble and significant description as John Shafer's when he said:
" If they were truly Pro-Life they would be interested in feeding the child, clothing the child, educating the child, providing health care for the child. That’s what it should mean to be Pro-Life."

That means that I am absolutely Pro-Life too. Thanks.
Thanks Mission, Steve, Jimmy, and Walter. John will be seeing the comments and you must know that your words make a difference to him and other small farmers. Precious few will speak out the way he did, and I am so proud that people will repay him with support and encouragement. And I will be excited to forward these comments to him. Many thanks for keeping us in your mind...only 3 weeks until general election....can't believe how far we've come.
So who gets to decide what the "stable price" is going to be? What are you going to do if they decide on a price you don't like or they do supply control by cutting your allowed production?

If you have a creamery who wants hormone free milk then sell it to them. No big company is going to coe in at night and inject
your herd.

My landlord's father has an organic dairy herd. Makes a good
living. His equipment is fairly new. He says the extra price is worth the trouble.

So what bills has been passed or introduced that will cause the doom and gloom? All I see is normal business. But I do have one question. Is your help unionized? It's one of Heidi's main points. If not why?
What a great interview, Heidi. Interviewing is an art, and you've got it. I like hearing the voice of someone I might never know, getting inside his head, and you've asked great questions without getting in the way. Great job. Thanks. Well deserved cover & EP. Keep 'em coming

MOC (r)
catinlion - you ask questions answered in the interview, so read it slower next time and take the time to think about it before reacting

Murder of Crows - "getting inside his head" - one of the best compliments ever...this is my entire mission, to bring light to the voices here. Thanks so much for stopping by and alerting me to the status of this post, I was unaware :)
As I've said before, I so appreciate your WI updates and especially love the interviews. CONGRATULATIONS on the first recall success -- it is doing my somewhat burned-out political heart such good to watch and support WI'ers true grassroots work.
The latest polls show a consistent erosion of support for the Republicruds in WI.
Thank you for sharing your views, John. As a scientist who returned home, after 30 years, and returned to farming as my family did for generations (I do organic vegetables and poultry primarily), I find your article validating of what I have experienced so far.

Our youngest daughter, now finished with college, has begun helping me and would love to be a farmer for the rest of her life but I also am concerned that it may be an uphill battle for her.

We are possibly planning to ask an elderly family at the "old home place" to take over there since it is no longer farmed. We have just a small amount of acreage with an old 1890 farmhouse but the demand for our produce, meat, and eggs require us to expand. In attempting to find grants allegedly meant for small entities like us, we have discovered that the state and county farm bureau people take the grants away (TN) by having spouses or others in the family apply so that the farm bureau employee can benefit in a shady manner. There is no way for the small farmer to get ahead.

In addition, there are a couple of local millionaires, including our congresswoman (Marsha Blackburn), whose families benefit greatly from the perks of agribusiness. These are the true welfare queens. One of these millionaires owns several farm equipment businesses and related businesses plus he receives subsidies that help him tie up lots of land in ag leases from many older people here who can no longer farm their own land. When we inquired about leasing some of the land, a few were open to it but we were told later that even if they leased one acre to us that was not currently under contract to this guy, he would "make their lives miserable" and threatened to even make sure they could never lease out their larger parcels of land if they rented to someone like us.

Thank you for stating the obvious regarding pro-life. It is nice to hear someone else state that so we don't sound like we are alone.

To Heidi, thank you so very, very much for doing such a great service. I am recommending this article to all of my CSA customers (Community Supported Agriculture) as well as those who continue to purchase our heirloom veggies at the local farmer's markets each year. To "Mission", absolutely true "no farms, no food." Price gouging is clearly on its way to the groceries in this country is something is not corrected soon.
Smokeysmom - "somewhat burned-out political heart"...wow - do I understand that finally...thanks for doing this hard work yourself ~

Lefty - I love your nicknames...always new and improving...and your news is always welcome - so glad to hear that!

Etoxmom - "I do organic vegetables and poultry primarily" - great! We need so many more people like you...thanks for your encouraging words for John - it really helps that when people stand up, others do too. Thanks so much.

All I see is a man who is telling you where he can improve his business but instead of doing that he wants the government to step in a guarentee he can't lose by fixing price and production.

I also see him wanting government to make unions the way, but how many union employees does he have? My guess is none. I'll bet he doesn't use Teamsters to move his farm products.

Business isn't easy. If your answer is to make it easy by having Uncle Sam step in and hold your hand and keep people from trying to take your market share, maybe you should just go get a job. I go head to head with giant companies every day. The states and feds give them hand outs in the millions every day and all those hand outs have strings attached. Every time they do that it creates a new crack in their business I'm able to take
advantage of.
Ms Herron,

Fascinating interview with Mr Shafer. Once again, information and perspective that is just not readily available as it ought to be. Mr. Shafer's everyday concerns indicate how many 'unheard' voices simply seek honesty, balance and fairness.

What good are we if we cannot respect and assist the needs of family farmers?

Mega-corps apparently leverage the resource with blind profit motives to grind down independents. The disregard of consequence is reckless, selfish and perhaps more 'collective' than most organized methods.
The mention of the cloak of retribution continues to nuance the rapid decline of traditional individualism, quality, creativity, affordability and the potential of nutritional access.

Mr. Shafer's articulation of this angst-riddled equation again emphasizes the encroaching despair of the brutalized working class. Inadvertent or conspiratorial, the machinations of the dollar aside the cracker barrel will not quash the truth inherent within the interview.

Thank you Ms. Herron and Mr. Shafer!
Catnlion – I’ll answer a questions of yours, then you answer one of mine. Most of your questions are answered in the interview; again, go back and read and apply some critical thinking. The only question that you have asked, that wasn’t answered in the interview was this, “Is your help unionized?” John hires one high school guy to help him, periodically, at minimum wage. John and his family operate their small farm on their own with that one exception when money allows.

So tell me this: why is it ok for big business to pass laws benefitting them, while regular people are scolded for asking for a hand out? For instance, Walker passed bill was passed in WI that gives away state owned property to “friends” without a fair bid. John talked about how that directly hurts him, b/c it is a “hand out” to big corps. But the only thing you can discuss is unions, unions, unions…wasn’t even mentioned here. You humilate yourself with your lack of depth and your transparent agenda. John deserves an honest discussion about his concerns – if you are incapable of that, please move along.
J.P. - "Once again, information and perspective that is just not readily available as it ought to be. Mr. Shafer's everyday concerns indicate how many 'unheard' voices simply seek honesty, balance and fairness. "

That is so wonderful to hear...my entire mission with these interviews is to give voice to the voiceless in all of this...the people working extremely hard and they are simply not heard. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and encourage both John and me....stop back anytime...

You are known here for you labor stand. While I think you are wrong, you will not hear me know that you believe in something. Everybody needs to believe in something.

In this piece labor and unions become part of the discussion in questions 2 and 4. So unless the man is a large farmer he is not hauling in what he needs to run his farm or hauling his production out. Those would be Teamster jobs.

As for no bid contracts. There are very few times when I agree with them. In most cases it's for stuff that needs to be done now, not in weeks or months. I see no reason for no bid land sales. I also don't see a need for a sale like you talked about. He got it fair, but he shouldn't have. There should be a fair market value minimum bid set. I'm assuming from the tone his bid wasn't fair market. If it was great. If not, no sale.

I don't believe little or big guys should get hand outs. So no you shouldn't get them.

Government should should be reeled in at all levels.
catnlion - you surprised me. I like it when that happens. I appreciate your civil, measured tone here. We can agree to disagree - and keep plugging along making this country work for all...and the only way to do that is to find commonalities and humanity in each other.
Heidi, Congrats on the EP. I echo all here who see the fine writing in your interviews. I hope your words are getting to those who need to see.
thanks Scupper - so glad to see you here, one of my first friends here, and I've always greatly admired your writing.

I'm happy to say that all of most of District 10's newspapers are allowing my blog in their "areavoices" section. People are debating and weighing in on the issues...the guy that did the video comes with me now to all the interviews and I believe the stories are getting wider attention and people are understanding the wide variety of issues involved here.

thanks again Scupper!

Disagreement is how we solve things. We tell each other what we thing, then we beat the stuffing out of each other until someone says uncle. :)

One of my strange points is you call me a name that's personal. What we do is not. Business is even less so. I've gone as fire my girlfriend. It wasn't personal. I would have fired you for the same thing. That's business, and no, we didn't break up.
That should have been I have gone as far as fire my girlfriend.
Thanks, Heidi, for bringing in the voice of a family farmer. My husband is also a 4th generation Wisconsin farmer (his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1858), and we share Mr. Shafer's concerns about agri-business, unstable milk prices, and the overall effect of the Walker budget. These are crazy times