December 8, 2022 at 7:42 p.m.
RIVER FALLS, Wis. – The Dairy Innovation Hub provides $7.8 million in state funding per year for broadly defined dairy research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls.
This year’s research updates were presented at the annual summit Nov. 16 at UW-River Falls. Topic areas included human health and nutrition, animal health and welfare, stewarding land and water resources, and farm businesses and communities.
With the funding, Christopher Holtkamp, assistant professor in conservation and environmental planning at UW-River Falls, is studying the changing landscape of the dairy industry and its impact on social capital in communities.
Holtkamp is expanding his initial research to look at more years of data and what exactly happens in communities as farms exit the landscape.
“I’ll be looking at small farm versus large farm results directly rather than at the county level to see if that makes a difference,” Holtkamp said.
When Holtkamp began his research, he began with data from 2019. The data indicated that as farm numbers declined so did the social capital of the communities located near the farms.
Social capital refers to the networks, relationships and behaviors among individuals and across communities.
The data collected from 2017-18 did not show the same decline outside of one particular county, but Holtkamp said since that timeframe, 800 farms have closed.
Holtkamp said there may be broader social impact.
“The state’s economy is largely driven by agriculture and many other things, but agriculture remains an important part of our communities,” Holtkamp said. “What impact is this transition in farming having on the rural communities across Wisconsin?”
Holtkamp dialed in on the top 10 dairy producing counties in Wisconsin to measure the social capital and economic conditions and looked at changes in dairy farm size and number of farms across those counties to see if there was a relationship.
To measure, Holtkamp used a social capital index, created by the U.S. Senate in 2018, which measures things like memberships in organizations and clubs, voter participation and census responses.
“Measuring social capital is a little tricky because it’s things like trust and relationships, and those are things that are hard to measure,” Holtkamp said. “Using proxies like memberships, volunteerism and voting activity, you can get a pretty good idea of how connected people are to their community.”
To measure economic conditions, Holtkamp used a metric that considers the economic health of individuals or households. The metric considers the county level cost of rent, groceries, gas and the expenses that make up a household budget. He also used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture census of changes in farm sizes from 2012-17.
Holtkamp said the results did not show a significant correlation between dairy farm consolidation and social capital; however, Holtkamp’s research did reveal that Brown County had the highest percentage of large farms, with about 18.5% of the farms in Brown County being over 500 head.
At the same time, the county also had the lowest social capital with the second highest percentage of households below the economic threshold, indicating income-constrained households.
The data from Brown County showed the most significant correlation between consolidation of farms and social capital.
“It’s a nice foundation to build on for future research,” Holtkamp said. “Even though the results were not quite what I was hoping for with this study, it does offer opportunities to do some comparison analysis over time.”