TOWN OF JANESVILLE
A local farmer long involved in the big picture of agriculture was appointed last week to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s policy-setting board.
Gov. Tony Evers appointed Doug Rebout, rural Janesville, to the nine-member citizen board. The Gazette talked with Rebout about the difficult times in farm country, including trade, low prices, farm closures and mental stress.
Rebout is a partner in Roger Rebout & Sons Farms near Janesville, named for his late father. His partners are his mother, Mary Joan, and two brothers, Dan and David.
They work the farm their parents founded in 1963, which has expanded to about 4,200 acres, where corn and soybeans are their major crops along with winter wheat and alfalfa. They also raise beef cattle and heifers for the town of Magnolia dairy operation Larson Acres.
Rebout is the president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change.
The Rebouts sold their cows and ended their longtime dairy operation in March because their longtime hired man took another job, it’s hard to find good help and because of the 24/7 stresses of running a dairy farm, Rebout said.
Rebout’s appointment to the nine-member board is for one year, to fill a vacant seat, but it’s likely the governor would appoint him for a full six-year term next year, he said. Appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
Gazette: What are the top two issues facing Wisconsin farmers today?
Rebout: Prices and mental health, and they go hand in hand.”
Rebout: “The prices we’re getting paid now aren’t a whole lot different than what my dad was getting paid in the ’70s and early ’80s. We are able to produce more with less than he was able to do. We’re getting more milk per cow and more yield per acre on our crops, but it’s not quite making up that whole difference ...
“We’ve had some very good years where it’s been very good for farming ... and farmers know that we’re going to have good years and bad years and years when we basically break even, and we’re prepared for that ... But lately, we consider it the perfect storm between the trade wars, low prices, the weather and now with this pandemic.”
Gazette: How does the coronavirus affect farmers?
Rebout: “It started during spring work. We were out on our tractors in the middle of fields. You can’t get much more isolated than that ...
“But everyone stopped driving, and the ethanol plants stopped producing ethanol. The ethanol plants in Wisconsin took 40% of our corn for the state. You don’t have that corn moving (to market). That’s impacting our prices and ability to move corn and get ready for the fall crop coming in.”
(The 40% is based on sales and doesn’t include corn raised and fed directly to animals)
Gazette: How does all this affect mental health?
Rebout: “It’s something farmers really don’t talk about. Just like anyone else, it’s hard to talk about something like that.”
He noted farmers have always suffered stress, “but this downturn in the economy has been going on so much longer that it’s starting to really affect people.”
Rebout noted farmers have a higher-than-average suicide rate, “And lot of that comes back to the low prices: You can’t pay your bills, support your family, and the possibility of losing the farm that’s been passed down for generations.
”And even if they’re not at that point of suicide, that mental burden on you just kind of wears you down, and you just need someone to talk to, even though it’s hard to go talk to someone.”
The state agriculture department has long had a number people could call for advice, but a 24/7 hotline was instituted July 1 so farmers in crisis can talk to someone immediately, Rebout said.
Gazette: What about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the new trade deal replacing NAFTA, that President Donald Trump’s administration negotiated and went into effect this month?
Rebout: “That one is huge for all of agriculture because when you have a trade agreement in place with your two closest countries—where it’s easiest to transport the goods back and forth—that’s always a good thing ...
“Mexico is right up there as the No. 1 buyer of a lot of agricultural products from Wisconsin and the rest of the country just because of that close proximity.”
Note: The USMCA reportedly opens previously closed doors for dairy products to flow both to and from Canada.
Gazette: Are farmers hopeful?
Rebout: We’ve got that (U.S.-Mexico-Canada) trade agreement. We’ve got the beginning of a trade agreement with China. (He noted most soybeans grown here go to China.)
“For a while, we couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with the trade deals. Now, we are starting to see the light. Unfortunately, this COVID threw everything up in the air. Right now, it’s unknown what’s going to happen, but at least once we’re done with the COVID, we’ve got some trade deals in place we can build off of.”
Gazette: With so many farmers under economic stress and the continuing loss of farms, what is the future of agriculture in this state? (Wisconsin reportedly lost 465 dairy farms in 2017, 638 in 2018 and 551 in 2019.)
Rebout: “The future of Wisconsin agriculture is strong. It’s $104.8 billion annually to our state economy. We’re here now, and we’re going be here in the future. It’s going to look different.
“You hear of these farms that are selling, the dairy farms. Part of that is due to the economy, and also a big part of it is due to that farmer getting older. He wants to retire. He doesn’t have that next generation that wants to farm, so he has to sell ...
“Some farmers don’t want to sell, but they can’t find help. That’s why you hear about all these farms selling out. It’s not all economic.
“You love seeing those small farms as you drive out through the country, and those small farms are still there ... Is it changing? Yes. You’re starting to see bigger farms ... “You spend $300,000 for a tractor, you want to run that tractor over as many acres as possible to get your money out of it.
“The ones that are selling out, a lot of them are selling their land or renting their land out, and then they’re going to help their neighbor farmer. So, a lot of those people are still farming, just not farming their own stuff anymore.”
Rebout said farmers can’t afford to pay high wages for the help they need.
“When the (Janesville) General Motors plant closed (in 2008), you had a lot of people come out to us looking for jobs, but they wanted the GM hours, the GM benefits, the GM wages, and we can’t do any of that. We don’t have that timeclock where you punch in for eight hours a day, four or five days a week. Sometimes, it’s 16 or 17 hours a day for multiple days in a row ... It’s not a clean job, outside, you’re in the dirt if you’re working with animals. But it is a rewarding job. That’s why we do it.”
Gazette: What do you think about concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs, where thousands of animals live on the same farm)? Can they be sustainable?
Rebout: “I don’t think they’re going to take over ... It’s a small percentage of the farms that are CAFOs here in the state of Wisconsin ...
“Are we going see more of them? Yeah, we probably will because it’s easier for the big farmers ... They have the means of getting the labor. They know what they’re doing. It’s easier for a CAFO than milking 170 cows. It is a sustainable business, and they do a good job.”
Gazette: What about the environmental concerns raised about CAFOs?
Rebout: “I understand those concerns. I have those concerns with our farm. But the bigger the farm, the more regulated you are, the more watched you are, so they have so many safety things in place.
“Can accidents (like manure spills) happen? Yes. But they are prepared for that. You always prepare for the worst thing, hoping you never have to use it.”
Gazette: What would you want city people to know about farming these days that they might not understand?
Rebout: “I don’t think they recognize and realize the amount of equity that we put into the price of our equipment and everything, and just the fact that a lot of people still view farming as the farmer out there with the straw hat and the pitchfork.
“Technology has taken over farming.”
(He noted milking cows involves pushing buttons. All records go to computers. Calves are fed by computer. Tractors run by computer.)
“One of the big fears, and I totally understand people having the fear: We see these big sprayers out in the fields spraying for weeds and bugs. With the technology we have, we are able to use so much less chemicals now than when I was growing up. We’re doing safer stuff for the environment.
”We don’t want to do anything out here that’s going to hurt our land, our water supply, because we are raising our families out here.”
Rebout noted GPS-enabled technologies help farmers spray only what is needed, where it’s needed, with equipment stopping the spraying automatically.
Gazette: What do you hope to accomplish on the DATCP board?
Rebout: “I don’t go onto any board saying, ‘Oh, I need to change this policy.’
“The way I view any board is, it’s going to take me some time to learn and get adjusted ... (He noted the department covers trade and consumer protection, things he needs to learn more about.)
“I just want to advocate for agriculture. I have the knowledge of agriculture. I can be a resource to other members. I can be the voice of reason, just like I’m sure everyone else on the board is.”
Gazette: Have you gotten any good advice about serving on the board?
Rebout: “The only thing people have said to me so far is just go up there and be who I am and just look at things through reasonable eyes, and don’t be afraid to speak up.”
Rebout’s first DATCP Board meeting is Thursday, July 23.
Note: Rebout joins two other DATCP board members with local connections:
- Paul Palmby, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Seneca Foods in Janesville, where he has worked for 28 years.
- Carla Washington, senior director of strategic partnerships and shelter services at the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee, who earned her master’s degree in business administration at UW-Whitewater.