Wisconsin - America's Dairyland No Longer

WISCONSIN is the land of milk and ... milk.

It has more dairy cows than trucks, about as many dairy farms as retail stores. Milk and its byproducts pump some $10 billion into the state economy. No wonder state license plates read: "America's Dairyland."

Alas, Wisconsin is about to lose its crown. By mid-decade, California is expected to take over as the nation's top milk producer. And that prospect upsets some.

"Wisconsin is noted as America's dairyland," says Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin's governor and a dairy farmer himself. "We are not going to lose it."

But the trends are clear - so clear that dairy experts are urging Wisconsin farmers to make dramatic changes. To beat California, they say, Wisconsin has to become more like it.

"We've reached a point where we need to be looking at agriculture the same way we look at nonagriculture businesses," says Terry Smith of the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability. "It's no longer the `Green Acres' sort of image."

If television ever remade that popular comedy, it would be hard to find a setting more suitable than Wisconsin - or more unsuitable than California. In Wisconsin, the average herd is 53 cows. In California, it is about 475. When Wisconsin farmers are not milking, they are tending crops. California dairymen typically buy their feed and manage hired workers.

California has been gaining on Wisconsin for years. Three years ago, Cornell University economist Andrew Novakovic forecast California would take over around 2018. As late as 1990, Wisconsin still had a substantial lead: 24.4 billion pounds of milk to California's 20.9 billion.

Then Wisconsin stopped growing. Last year, it produced only 24.1 billion pounds while California moved up to 22.1 billion pounds. And California's growth came during the drought, Mr. Novakovic says. If the state resumes more normal growth, "California may become No. 1 before 1995."

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