Carley Buetow worries about the future of farming.

The UW-River Falls student comes from a medium-sized family dairy farm - the same kind that's facing struggles all over the Upper Midwest, thanks to a decline in milk prices. The problem has forced many farms into bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"That hit really close to home for me," the Cologne, Minn., resident said.

But Buetow fears the message isn't reaching much of the general public.

That's why she launched a group within the university's Association of Women in Agriculture (AWA) that aims to shine a light on hardships and developments in the agriculture community.

The group, dubbed Featured Farms, takes students out to working farms in the area, where they get a Muck-Boots-on-the-ground assessment of the operation. Buetow said one key component will be reporting back what they find and disseminating the information to local and regional publications.

"So people can know exactly what's going on in the world of agriculture," she said.

And there's plenty to be learned, the group's adviser said.

Casie Bass, a UWRF assistant professor of animal and food science, said there's a clear benefit to be gained from witnessing first-hand what farmers experience.

"I tell my students all the time that I can describe my experiences and teach them from a textbook for weeks on end, but they also need to network with individuals and companies off campus," Bass said.

Bass said the litany of challenges farmers face range from workforce issues to weather and fluctuating crop prices. It's even harder on smaller farms, she said.

"They administer meds, work in the dairy parlors, pull calves in the middle of the night, fix fencing, feed/water horses and hogs," Bass said. "It really is endless."

The group's first outing was in November at the Jason Kjos dairy farm in River Falls. There, he shared how smaller dairy farms make up ground amid falling milk prices by specializing.

Efficiency and quality will be essential for small- to medium-sized farms to survive, the students said they learned. But what happens when you've maximized both efficiency and quality?

"You find a specific, tiny niche and you go for that," she said, offering the example of products like curds or ice cream, along with the option of producing organic crops.

The trip was an eye-opener for Kaylee DeRuyter, a college junior from Cedar Grove, Wis., where she grew up on a beef farm.

"For me, it was super different because the beef industry is a different ballpark," she said.

Buetow said diversification is already a reality back on her home farm. In addition to milking cows, they also have a crop operation that augments the dairy side.

"It's really not just one business," she said.

Buetow said Kjos described to students how much more reliant future farming operations will be on technology to stay competitive. Things like drones and self-driving tractors will be in that mix, they explained.

Bass said Featured Farms could go a long way in preparing the young women as they make their way in a field where women continue to overcome gender hurdles.

"I want my female students to be able to focus on their work when they arrive at a farm instead of having their client ask when the male vet will arrive," she said. "I hope for my female students to receive equal pay compared to their male colleagues. I wish for opportunities, personal and professional, to be made as available to them as others."

Buetow and fellow AWA member DeRuyter hope the experience motivates some members toward advocacy on agricultural issues.

They said the use of antibiotics and vaccines often don't get a fair shake, for example. DeRuyter and Buetow said the public isn't generally aware of best practices on farms that reduce risks and concerns.

There is a difference to be made "if we could just educate everybody about what's going on," Buetow said.