Socioeconomic Analysis of Organic, Grass-Based & Conventional Dairy Farmers in Wisconsin with Case Study in Amish Stewardship Practices in the Kickapoo Valley

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2004: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Bradford Barham
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Annual Reports


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: grazing - multispecies, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: continuous cropping
  • Education and Training: focus group, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, new enterprise development, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: riverbank protection, soil stabilization
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, sustainability measures


    Divergence in farm strategy has implications for structure, technology/management and farm viability.  Organic farmers seem especially vibrant with high satisfaction levels with overall quality of life and income and high expectations for their future in farming.  They are also progressive in their adoption of modern technologies given their moderate scale of operations.  Amish dairy farmers, with their small herd sizes and low levels of technology adoption, also have high levels of satisfaction with life and expectations for a future in farming. Adoption decisions of organic and MIRG and associated economic viability are being analyzed


    A few decades ago, the Wisconsin dairy sector was dominated by one farm management strategy, the mid-sized conventional operation.  Currently, there is an expansion of large-scale confinement operations, but there is also growth of other farm management strategies, all of which involve more intensive use of pasture.  The three pasture-based farm management types which is the focus of this study are certified organic, pasture-based non-organic dairies (MIRG), and Amish dairies.  However, large and small and mid-sized conventional farms will also be included for background.  This dissertation explores the   structure, behavior of the different farm types as well as the decisions associated with the adoption of these farm management approaches and their associated viability-performance, taking into consideration economic, social, spiritual, and environmental factors.

    This research explores the basis for the continued persistence of small to moderate sized operators during an era of significant expansion in the number and scale of large confinement operations. (Jackson-Smith and Barham 2000; Foltz and Lang 2005; Cross 2006).  The behavior of these farm strategies is explored by comparing and contrasting the management practices and technologies utilized.  Several social and economic performance indicators, including productivity, profitability, and satisfaction with income, and quality of life measures, are compared as well as a few ecological health indicators (manure management techniques and rotational grazing frequencies).  I will also explore correlations between these characteristics with an emphasis on identifying characteristics which may be correlated with more economically successful operations (aside from farm type).  Farm management choice is also being explored through personal interviews which focus on economic, social, spiritual and ecological factors that contribute to farm decision making and also towards assessment of their farm’s viability.

    Wisconsin provides an ideal context for exploring diversity in dairy farming, because of the rich data that are available for exploring those farming systems.  Wisconsin is the leading producer of organic dairy products in US markets and is also home to the largest organic milk cooperative, Organic Valley (CROPP).  Graziers constitute almost a quarter of Wisconsin’s dairy farms (Taylor and Foltz 2006).  The Amish are already 5-7% of the state’s dairy operations and are expected to be 10% by 2010 (Cross 2004).  Wisconsin also has the 2nd largest concentration of Amish church districts in the US (Luthy 2003).

    The interview data is concentrated in the Southwestern part of Wisconsin which is an especially important area amongst alternative farmers for social and ecological reasons.  The Kickapoo Valley is located in this SW region and is home to a concentration of organic and MIRG dairy farmers.  About a quarter of the state’s Amish dairies are also located in this region.  The hills and valleys of Southwestern Wisconsin make large-scale cropping difficult and may help to explain why farmers who rely heavily on pastures are concentrated here.  The region is especially ecologically fragile and has experienced large-scale erosion, flooding and alterations of streams and valleys due to destructive agricultural practices in the first half of the 20th century.

    This dissertation research will merge economic data and thinking with the more holistic approach to farm decision making depicted in the farm household literature (Barlett 1980; Bennett 1982; Salamon 1992; Bell 2004).  The Greek origin of the word economics, “oikonomia” translates to “steward the household”  which merges economic, social, spiritual and ecological dimensions into farm decision making (Meeks 1985; Daly and Cobb 1989; Young 1992; Worster 1994; Gottfried 1995; Goudzwaard 2000; Ikerd and 2005).  There are a number of theoretical frameworks that are utilized to frame the dissertation such as bounded rationality theory (e.g. (Simon 1955; Gigerenzer and Goldstein 1996; Kahneman 2003)), adoption diffusion-innovation theory (Gillespie 2001; Padel 2001) farming styles (e.g. van der Ploeg 1985; Salamon 1992; Howden and Vanclay 2000) that will give varying degrees of insight and perspectives to aspects of these adoption choices.  Social networks and local knowledge theory plays a major role in these adoption decisions (e.g. Kloppenberg 1991; Hassanein 1999; Nybloma et al. 2003; Lockie 2006).  Church and spiritual networks also may play a role in farm management decisions especially amongst the Amish (Hostetler 1993.; Hockman-Wert 1998; Redekop 2000).

    Divergence with respect to farm strategy has implications for structure, technology and management adoption patterns as well as farmer satisfaction levels.  This report indicates that alternative dairy farming systems will likely become more prevalent on the agricultural landscape of Wisconsin.

    Project objectives:

    Our objectives are to:
    1. Determine the factors that influence performance (at the farm-level) on eco-labeled dairy
    2. Compare & contrast profitability, quality of life & management practices within & between organic, pasture dairy (including those that don’t eco-label) & conventional producers
    3. Explore Amish farming stewardship practices while considering Anabaptist faith and culture.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.