More Wisconsin farms become extended family affair

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The federal government released new farm data this month in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which helps illustrate changes in how the nation's food is produced. Here's a look at some interesting trends in Wisconsin:

FAMILY FARMS

Advertisers and retailers use the phrase "family farm" to conjure images of small, idyllic homesteads run by a nuclear family. Some Wisconsin farms still fit that mold, but a growing number are run by extended families, with siblings, cousins and other relatives working together.

Most of Wisconsin's 69,754 farms are family-owned, but nearly half — 48.6 percent — are run by more than one person.

Farmers say there are two main advantages to working together: They can focus on individual areas of expertise and take breaks. Partnerships are particularly appealing in the dairy industry, where cows need nearly around-the-clock care.

Karen Hughes oversees milking and care of the 900 cows on a farm near Allenton started by her father and his three brothers in the 1970s. Cousins and friends also have come on board with expertise that improves the farm's operation, specializing in things like manure management, crop rotation and machinery.

"When the skid loader breaks, I don't have to worry about fixing it, I can call a guy who knows exactly how to fix it, and he's fast at it because he knows how to do it," said Hughes, 29.

Sharing the work also allows family members to volunteer at church, the local fire department and on the town board.

ORGANIC AGRICULTURE

Wisconsin had 1,180 organic farms in 2012, more than any other state except California. Nearly one in five was in Vernon County, home of Organic Valley, the nation's top seller of organic milk.

In the late 1980s, tobacco farmers in western Wisconsin were looking for a new crop. A handful of vegetable growers helped form the cooperative, and dairy farmers joined later.

"Once we started succeeding, it also fostered other people succeeding," said Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, one of the founding farmers. He estimated the company's economic impact in the state at more than $40 million.

The area has developed a support system, with organic feed mills, veterinarians and training provided by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. Vernon County is also home to Harmony Valley Farm, and another major farm, Driftless Organics, is in neighboring Crawford County.

Organic Valley now employs 1,800 farms nationwide and 750 non-farm workers.

LOCAL FOOD

The United States has been losing farms for decades, and Wisconsin is no different. It had about 7,400 fewer farms in 2012 than a decade earlier.

But some places added farms, with Chippewa County leading the way.

Though the county's mid-sized farms declined because of mergers with larger operations, the area about two hours east of Minneapolis gained more than 200 small farms of 50 acres or less.

Jerry Clark, a University of Wisconsin-Extension agent, said some small farms produce specialty products, such as currants or wine grapes, and there is a boom in growers who have full-time jobs but earn extra income selling produce at local farmers markets.

"We've seen some building out into rural areas where homeowners might end up with a few more acres than they would care to mow ... so they're looking at some type of use for the land and they're finding small fruit or vegetable production is something that they're interested in," Clark said.

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