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Milk: it does a political body good
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Beginning dairy farmers have a hard time fronting all their start-up costs. A new dairy subsidies proposal caters to farmers who own twenty cows or less. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
It's not often that you hear about people going into the dairy industry. More often, the news is about farmers shutting down their dairy operations. And yet, a number of young people would love to enter the dairy business. A student at Ridgewater College in Willmar is so serious about his dreams of dairy farm ownership, that he's helping to draft legislation to make it possible. He came up with a proposal that would soften the blow of farm start-up costs.

Sauk Centre, Minn. — Getting into the dairy business involves many elements. First you need the land, verdant and fertile, unfolding under the warmth of a spring sun. In rural areas, that kind of land is increasingly expensive.

Then there's all the equipment used to milk the cows; a metallic array of pumps and storage devices. The picture's only complete, of course, once you add Bessy the cow and her friends. The average dairy farm houses about 80 dairy cows.

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Image Farmers Nick and Gerry Meyer

Put all that together, and you have a lovely, pastoral scene -- and a bill of about $1 million.

Eric Zwilling, 20, says that would put him in debt for years. So he's trying to figure out how to make it work.

"Is it worth it? Yeah, or I wouldn't be going to two years of school for it," Zwilling says. "It's being your own boss. You're not always doing the same work day in and day out. There's always different changes every day that happen. It's fun to experience."

Zwilling's not from a farm family, but one of his first jobs in his native Sauk Centre was at the Meyer family farm. It's where Zwilling met Nick Meyer, 23. Nick's entry into the dairy business will be very different from Eric's.

"My parents own this farm here, and I'm just leasing the farm from them over a period of years," Nick Meyers explains. "So I don't have that whole debt load coming at one point, like anybody who doesn't have this to work into. They have to go out and buy it themselves."

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Image Eric Zwilling and Nick Meyer

That's Eric Zwilling's plight.

"There are also people like me who are scratching their heads. Do I get to purchase this large investment, or what do I do?" Zwilling notes. "But there are people out there who want to do it. We have to make it easier, more feasible to get into it."

Zwilling had an idea about how things could be made easier. One of his teachers at Ridgewater College encouraged him to present it to legislators. Zwilling devised an incentives program for dairy farmers that would work like ethanol subsidies. For decades, ethanol farmers have received state funds to help them through the first ten years of production.

In Zwilling's plan, dairy farmers could get up to $10,000 per year in subsidies for their milk. The farmers would need to complete required coursework. They'd also have to be starting out with a small dairy farm; they couldn't own more than 20 cows to begin with.

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Image State Sen. Steve Dille

The idea resonated with Steve Dille, a farmer just outside Dassel.

Dille also happens to be a state senator. Home from the Capitol one afternoon to feed his animals, he explains his thoughts on farm subsidies. He says it's good that ethanol producers have enjoyed state subsidies for so long. But it's time for the state to confer the same benefits on other farmers.

"I'm also very concerned about the livestock industry, especially the dairy industry in this state," Dille says. "If we could help this industry like we helped the ethanol industry and the corn producers, that would be great."

Sen. Dille worked with Eric Zwilling on his dairy subsidies proposal, and included the idea in some legislation.

Dille says the proposal could bring a lot more dairy farmers into the profession. At least 130 farmers have expressed interest in the program so far.

That could be a boon to Minnesota, where milk production is starting to lag compared to other states.

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Image Subsidize me!

Eric Zwilling is optimistic about the dairy proposal, and thrilled that his idea got this far.

"It shows people that your voice does count. Participating in politics is great, especially in the dairy industry," Zwilling says, grinning. "You have to tell people what you want, and sooner or later, something will get through."

The proposal's still under review. And there are concerns about how much it will cost. But for Eric Zwilling, it could mean a chance at his dream.

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