Person of the Year: The Dairy Farmer
The worst drought in decades brings Dane County’s rich and varied agricultural community into sharp focus. Dairy farmers in particular have been hit hard, but surviving—even thriving—in hard times is all in a day’s work.
Jeff Endres snaps his flip phone shut and climbs out of his pickup, offering his hand in polite greeting. There’s an earnest crease on his brow tucked just beneath a red ball cap, his white T-shirt already work-stained by late morning. He’s so soft-spoken you have to lean in to hear him against the constant thrum of the dairy farm that beats like an enormous heart, a living, breathing thing. A calico kitten shoots out of the calf barn and fiercely weaves itself around his dusty brown boots. I nod toward the lush-looking crops across the road and tell him how healthy everything looks to me, how vibrant and alive, when just a month ago all the world seemed scorched, choked spikes of browns and yellows.
“Yeah, it’s kind of misleading,” Endres says, thoughtfully. “The damage has been done in a lot of it.”
We’re at the tail end of a drought year, the worst in decades. After a strange winter without a single school snow day, summer showed up three months early with eighty-degree weather in March. Farming is a constant guessing game anyway. Everybody does things a little bit differently, and so some guys gambled and planted early, thinking they could eke out an extra harvest. It might have worked, too, if the rains had come, but they didn’t, not for months. Early crops were lost entirely, current crops are yielding maybe half what they would have, and most everybody is short on feed, meaning they have to dig into last year’s inventory or buy more in a seller’s market. It’s too early to tell what the final score will be, but current estimates show that up to seventy percent of Dane County crops used to feed cows have been lost this summer. For some farmers, it’s flat-out devastating.
“Right now the dairy segment is facing probably the worst economic challenges of any commodity,” says Pam Jahnke, the radio commentator better known to some as the Fabulous Farm Babe. “And that’s because milk prices are a little bit softer than we would hope, and feed costs are so incredibly high.”
Endres doesn’t yet know what his total hit will be, but so far his purchase feed costs are up thirty-five percent. He won’t have excess corn to sell like he usually does, which will take another fifteen percent off his bottom line. The real financial impact won’t be known for at least another six months, maybe even a year. It all depends on so many unpredictable things—weather, feed costs, crop yields, herd health, milk prices—but farming has always been this way.
Endres owns Berry Ridge Farms in equal parts with his brothers, Steve and Randy. So much has changed since their great-great-grandfather John, a German immigrant, staked a farmstead here, building the tiny St. Mary of the Oaks Chapel out at nearby Indian Lake Park in a bargain with God to spare his kids from diphtheria. The deal worked, and today these brothers are the fifth generation of farmers, operating 1,150 acres of cropland, mostly forage crops for feed but also cover crops to protect the environment, a practice in which Endres is considered a leader by many county officials. He’s part of the Clean Lakes Alliance community board in Madison, as well as president of the Yahara Pride Farms board, a group that just organized a five-farm winter seed aerial drop as part of a county-funded drought initiative that will ideally feed cows for forty-one families and protect the Lake Mendota watershed at the same time. Endres is a huge believer that farmers can have a tremendous impact on enhancing the environment, but that the movement has to come from them. And that no matter what you do, “Mother Nature has the last word,” he says.
Like most Wisconsin dairy farmers in the 1950s, Endres’s parents milked a barn full of about sixty cows. Endres, now forty-seven, joined them straight out of high school. When the brothers decided to band together to run the family farm they expanded steadily over the years, first to a hundred cows, then 220, and now 350. Another 350 or so young stock are housed in the old barn waiting their turn, and a sleek new free-stall barn and milking parlor with an upstairs office sit just up the driveway on the hill above it. Between the three men they’ve got nine kids; eight of them girls, all of them “very interested” in farming and two now old enough to study dairy science, one at UW–Madison and one at UW–Platteville. The brothers employ about four people on the farm, splitting the operation in three parts: Randy is in charge of the feeding, a process that takes four hours on a good day. Steve supervises the milking, now three times a day instead of two, just as in many modern dairies, since they built the parlor. Jeff is in charge of the crops.
A lot of dairy farm families have gone this route to stay profitable, particularly in the last fifteen to twenty years, due to game changers like technological ad-vances, a new, more distracted generation and the ravenous ethanol market driving up the cost of feed. Jahnke says consumers might complain about the cost of milk at the grocery store, but they don’t realize farmers themselves get only about fourteen cents for every dollar spent on ag commodities.
“I saw numbers the other day that said dairy farmers growing their own feed are paying about fifty-five cents a gallon just to feed those cows,” says Jahnke. “That’s pretty incredible. That means there’s not much margin left to pay for electricity, hired help, equipment, retirement, debt, all the rest of the stuff that goes in on the average business’s bottom line.”
The number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has shrunk dramatically in recent decades, from 30,000–40,000 statewide to fewer than 11,000 today. Many smaller farms have closed or consolidated into larger operations but, despite public perception, remain family owned and operated. In fact, almost ninety-nine percent of dairy farms in Dane County are family owned. Some of them have just gotten really, really big.
Luckily—or, more accurately, deliberately—Wisconsin’s agricultural infrastructure, a thick web of independent farmers, agribusiness, governmental agencies, cooperatives, producer groups and a land-grant university system with a farming mandate, is built to withstand change and support a steady evolution. And guys like Endres are at the forefront of innovative practices credited with cleaning up the county for everybody, including restoring Madison’s lakes—most of the time at great personal expense—all the while running complex, locally owned businesses in a multibillion-dollar industry that’s helping keep Wisconsin afloat through an ugly economic time. And still, despite the dairy industry’s omnipresence, there’s a good chance you’re sitting at home right now thinking, what’s all this got to do with me?
A few years ago I was jogging along the rural county road near my home when I stopped short for some errant cows in the road. After a brief, blinking standoff and some wild but failed gesticulating, I padded down the gravel driveway and knocked on the farmhouse door. “Your cows are out,” I smiled at the farmer, helpfully. He squinted past me, then quickly swiveled back, a look of annoyance darkening his face. “Those aren’t cows,” he said, incredulous. “Those are heifers.”
I’ve lived in Wisconsin farm country most of my life, though never on a farm. It’s the miles and miles of green that make me feel most at home, the comfort of hay curls rolled tight against the plains, the loamy scent of freshly tilled dirt. I speed past farm after farm on my commute to Madison several times a week, as do many of you—farmers own or manage seventy percent of Dane County’s land. And yet, for the most part, the only conscious contact I have with farmers is when I’m stuck in a mind-numbingly slow lineup behind a tractor. As a kid, if we wanted to spend the night at my best friend Carrie’s house we had to earn our keep, hauling milk pails in the mucky barn, picking stones from the field or throwing bales of hay down from the mow—and yet I still had to Google “heifer versus cow” after that run-in with my neighbor. (She’s a heifer until the day she gives milk, by the way. Then she’s a cow.) The truth is I eat more than my fair share of milk and cheese, but I know embarrassingly little about the dairy industry. And I’m not alone.
“That disconnect is nothing new,” laughs Jahnke. “That’s what keeps me in business, that’s what keeps me a viable journalist.”
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In Dane County, dairy and agriculture provide 16,767 jobs—more than four percent of the total workforce. Of all the counties in the state, Dane County ranks number three in milk production—twenty-third of all counties in the nation. Dane County agriculture generates $3.45 billion, about seven percent of the county’s total business sales; dairy is the largest chunk of that, a $700 million industry with nearly four hundred dairy farms totaling more than 51,000 dairy cows, including an eighty-eight-head operation smack dab in the center of Madison at the university, a worldwide leader in agricultural research. As a land-grant institution, the University of Wisconsin is intricately woven into agriculture throughout the state. On the Madison campus, the dairy science department plays three roles—teaching, research and extension. Every professor conducts his or her own research, then passes it on through either teaching in the classroom or teaching off-campus, through UW Extension.
“Agriculture is an incredibly important part of our county, both economically and culturally,” says county executive Joe Parisi. “Dane County has this incredible mix of urban and rural and suburban and small town, and when you take it as a whole, we’re intertwined much more than many of us realize on a day-to-day basis. We are such a diverse community. But we’re one community.”
Statewide, dairy contributes $26.5 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy. But $26.5 billion is a really tough number to wrap your mind around. So consider this: Florida’s self-defining citrus? $9.3 billion. Idaho’s potatoes? $2.7 billion. California’s raisins? A measly $602 million.
Speaking of California, it’s true they’ve managed to make more milk than us in recent years, but theirs is a superficial victory. They’ve slapped up supersized milk parlors but have to purchase their own feed, which means things are hurting for them right now. In Wisconsin, most farmers grow their own and always have, and most farms are passed down from generation to generation. It’s a far more sustainable, diverse, flexible infrastructure, plenty strong enough to weather most crises. We’re the Dairy State not just in production output, but down deep in our DNA.
Plus we’re blowing them away in cheese.
Dairy is not only big, big business. It’s undeniably critical to the health of the whole state. Particularly because it’s made up of families, each pumping dollars into every local community, standing next to you in church, at the softball game, at the bank. And yet, “the average consumer only hears about Wisconsin’s dairy industry when it’s in bad shape,” says Jahnke. Or when farmers are doing something we think we don’t like, like growing too large, polluting our lakes or making us pay more than we want to for our milk.
Jahnke says we’re now five generations removed from agriculture. In 1950, farmers made up twelve percent of our total population; today, that number is down to two percent. It used to be every non-farmer had a friend or extended family member like my childhood friend Carrie. The whole family worked the farm; today Mom has a job outside the home to secure health insurance for the family, and kids are far too busy with homework, soccer, karate and piano lessons to do chores. Production costs have risen while the price farmers are paid for their milk has remained relatively low, forcing many a farmer to do a lot more work himself with a lot less—and he has. He’s hired help, invested in technology and streamlined operations. Or he’s gotten out, opting to do something else entirely, something a little less hard on the body, something that pays a little better and maybe comes with a benefit or two. But the average consumer isn’t aware of the challenges farmers face and still clings to the notion of an ideal that’s no longer viable.
“Many consumers very much want to believe in the fifty-cow dairy, the red barn, the white picket fence, Mom and Dad and the kids going out to the barn every day, twice a day, to milk those cows,” says Jahnke. “That still exists, but it is a rarity. I grew up on one of those farms. And I’ll tell you right now, for the farm I grew up on to survive today would be near impossible.”
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Back in the 1980s—around the time the rest of us were witlessly chucking our empty Tab cans out the car window—Chuck Ripp’s cows freely grazed the rolling hills north of Waunakee. You can catch a glimpse of them in an aerial snapshot hanging on his office wall. The farm is frozen in time about halfway through its evolution, slightly larger than when his grandfather bought it in the late 1940s, but not yet tricked out with four free-stall barns and the environmentally conscious renovations of today. In this photo the cattle are free to roam, munching on grass and slurping at will from a picturesque waterway, one that connects to Six Mile Creek and, eventually, Lake Mendota.
“We thought we were doing everything right,” says Ripp, shaking his head. “We had no idea. We didn’t know the implications from runoff going into the waters like we do now.”
Ripp’s Dairy Valley—like Jeff Endres’s, a multigenerational joint family venture between Chuck and his brothers Troy and Gary—is nestled in an area of the county officials have determined a hot spot on the phosphorous target-area map. Farmers use cow manure to fertilize their crops, but when the rains come, phosphorus—critical for soil health but dangerous for aquatic ecosystems—runs straight off the fields and into the waterway, where each pound creates five hundred pounds of algae in the Yahara chain of lakes. Phosphorus is generated in urban areas too, but it turns out it’s tens of millions of dollars cheaper (in some cases $30 per pound versus $120) to remove it upstream on the farm through adaptive management techniques, versus end-of-pipe at city sewage facilities. That’s why the county is working with farm families as part of County Executive Parisi’s Dane County Water Partnership, a multifaceted, multiyear initiative to seek out “win-wins” for all Dane County residents. It’s not just about the phosphorus; the county’s priority, through its Department of Land and Water Resources, and UW–Extension, is to work in partnership with farmers on anything they might need, especially right now with the drought. In addition to the drought relief flyover, Parisi has lobbied hard for federal attention to conditions in Dane County. Extension created a centralized website called Drought 2012, and officials say they make sure to get their feet on the ground at the farms so they can really listen to what farmers actually need.
“We can’t just go into their farms and tell them what they need to do and then leave and expect them to implement anything,” says Kevin Connors, county director of Land and Water Resources. “That’s gonna fail. Really fail. What it really takes is education, years of trust and two-way respect.”
There are low-investment, low-tech ways to effectively manage runoff, like planting a buffer strip along a drainage ditch or a stream, or a cover crop that holds nutrients in the soil. And then there are big ways, like the enormous community manure digester on the hill overlooking Ripp’s Dairy Valley and his two neighbors, White Gold Dairy and Endres Dairy (that’s Dick Endres, not Jeff). Liquid manure—90,000 gallons a day—from all three farms is pumped underground into the huge vats on the hill, along with 10,000 gallons of food waste, where the methane is converted into power for approximately 2,500 homes on Alliant Energy’s grid. The processed poop is filtered back to the farms, free of charge and with fifty-eight to seventy-four percent less phosphorus, so when it’s applied to the fields it’s significantly less risky for the waterway. (There’s also a compacted, dried-down amount that’s sold to landscape companies.) The manure fertilizes the crops, the crops are fed to the cows, and the whole cycle starts anew.
Wisconsin currently has thirty-five “cow power” plants statewide, the most of anyone in the nation—Germany, on the other hand has 7,000—but they’re generally privately owned by the farmers who constructed them. The Waunakee digester is unique in that it’s the first collaboration of its kind in the state, a partnership between public agencies, private companies and willing farmers. It’s owned and operated by Clear Horizons LLC, which sells the power to Alliant. It was funded in part by a USDA grant and facilitated by county staff, and farmers are not paid for the use of their manure—nor does it cost them or the county anything. The first project employed sixty contractors and 230 subcontractors and suppliers. Plans for a second digester with new partners are currently under way outside Middleton, and county officials estimate it will produce just as many jobs as the first one. A total of five digesters are included in the Clean Lakes Alliance’s energetic plan to reduce annual phosphorous loads in the Yahara watershed by half.
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Initially when then-county executive Kathleen Falk’s office approached Ripp about the digester several years ago, he was hesitant. “We didn’t want the county to tell us what to do at first,” he says, but with more than a thousand animals now, Ripp is required to farm with a DNR permit, which means he’s gotten pretty good at implementing input from all sorts of local and state government agencies. He also works “a lot” with the UW Department of Dairy Science and is a member of the Yahara Pride Farms Conservation Board with Jeff Endres, and he says every bit of it has been for the better.
“When you work with them,” as opposed to against them, “everything goes a lot smoother,” he says, shrugging and wiping at his face with a white handkerchief. It’s a hot day, but here inside the shady free-stall barn it’s at least ten degrees cooler with dozens of industrial-sized fans blowing. There’s also a water pipe running directly above the cows that cools them when they need it, just like over at Jeff Endres’s farm.
“When cows are hot, they’re stressed and they go way down on milk,” says Ripp, pointing at several cows lying on beds of sand. “If a cow’s laying there chewin’ her cud? She’s happy, she’s comfortable, she’s making milk. That’s the best thing you want to see.”
There’s a lot Ripp and his brothers do to keep these cows happy. The hoof trimmer and veterinarian each make weekly visits, and the pens are scraped and cleaned three times a day. Daily milkings have risen from two to three times a day—easier on the cows, harder on the farmer. Ripp’s Dairy Valley employs a crew of twelve people, eight of them who split the twenty-four-hour milking day into two twelve-hour shifts.
Farming is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job. If something goes wrong on the farm, like a clog in the manure digester line last summer, you fix it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Fourth of July and 102 degrees and everybody else is at the family picnic. You do what you gotta do. On the other hand, farming in partnership means you can make it to your kid’s ball game, a luxury Ripp’s dad couldn’t afford.
“There’s a lot more to dairy farming than there ever used to be,” says Ripp, “but it’s fun, it’s exciting, and we like being our own bosses.”
Between the community digester, the free-stall barns, his cover crops, the way he’s paved his entire operation to contain runoff and the ditches that are carved to do the same thing, Ripp’s Dairy Valley operates like one big teachable moment. That’s what Ripp loves best, getting people out on the farm to show it all off to everyone from the Waunakee kindergarteners who tour every year to the farmers from the United Kingdom, Czech Republic—“Chile, Italy, you name it,” Ripp says—who stop out during the World Dairy Expo in Madison. Ripp’s got a clear passion both for farming and for conservation, and there’s one misconception that burns him more than anything else.
“They tend to call me a factory farm, but I’m as family farm as I can be,” says Ripp, whose operation directly feeds three families, plus those of his employees. “I’m partnered with two other brothers instead of us three struggling, trying to have our own small farm. We brought it all together and made ourselves a real good business together.”
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This is not to say that every dairy farmer has gone the go-big-or-go-home route of Jeff Endres and Chuck Ripp. That’s the thing about farmers; you can’t characterize them with blanket statements. Historically staunchly independent, farmers are famous for doing their own thing. They might network, maybe at the expo, maybe at the coffee shop; they might drive really slowly through the countryside, studying hard what the other guys are doing; but they always go home and put their own twist on things.
Forty-year-old Jason Ihm milks ninety-six cows and crops about three hundred acres west of Mount Horeb, and he has lots of ideas. He’s even patented one of them—a fork that fits to the front of a skidloader to grab silage more easily—but all the others will have to wait a few years. There’s work to be done on the farm.
Ihm’s been at it since he was seventeen, opting to leave the family farm while his older brother stayed and took it from eighty cows to eight hundred. Ihm wanted to be his own boss, wanted to do things his own way. He invested in a small herd and rented space until he was able to purchase his farm in 1999. At the time, he paid $2,150 an acre—the most anyone had paid for farmland in Dane County. Today, the average price for an acre of farmland in Dane County is about $5,800, and Ripp says land goes for $10,000 to $13,000 an acre where he is in the Waunakee area.
“I started from nothing. And it has never been easy,” says Ihm, “but I don’t know if anybody could do today what I did then.”
Ihm has no plans to invest in a $400,000 free-stall barn with a fancy milk parlor, even though he suspects thrice-daily milking is indeed easier on the cows. He’s content to head out to the barn every morning and evening to milk twice a day with the hired man in his stanchion barn, manually moving the milk machine from cow to cow. And of all the technological advances he’s seen in his farming lifetime, the one that’s changed his life the most is not the one I would have guessed—it’s the smartphone. His dad used to have to leave the field or the barn and go into the house to call for parts or check the weather or the markets; now it’s all literally in the palm of his hand.
What frustrates him the most is the public’s perception of milk prices, that if that hundredweight price is high, he’s the one reaping the benefits. He’s not.
“The papers talk about the milk prices going up, but they don’t talk about all the bills we have, the vet bills, the feed bills, repair bills, fuel for the tractors, tires. It all comes out of that milk check, you know?” says Ihm. Then he checks himself, laughing. “All we do is complain [about the weather],” he says, grinning. “It’s too hot, too wet, too dry, too cold. Well, it’s always gonna be that way. The weather’s never gonna be perfect. No matter if it’s rain or shine, we have to keep working.”
But generally farmers are good people, he says. Very giving and generous and helpful. “It’s more conversation, I think,” he says. “The complaining part.”
So Ihm opts not to watch the soybean and corn and milk markets roll up and down, choosing instead to get paid for his milk at market price, which can vary significantly month to month. It doesn’t make sense to him, the way the speculators fluctuate the market while demand stays steady, and the same number of people go in and out of the grocery store carrying the same amount of milk. So he doesn’t try to predict it and his blood pressure stays steady. That milk check comes twice a month (Ihm produces 1.6 million pounds a year), but you never know what expenses will arise minute by minute. That’s why farmers are so good for the economy; something is always breaking, something always needs buying. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, each dairy cow pumps $21,000 into the local economy. “It’s pretty well known that if you give a farmer a dollar,” says Ihm, “he’ll spend two.”
Ihm didn’t hear about the county aerial seed drop initiative until the deadline passed, but he probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. He got hit by the drought—he estimates about half his corn is lost—but he had a forage carryover from last year that’s getting him through. Things will be really bad, he says, if it happens again next year. That could put a lot of farms out of business for good.
“This year a lot of guys, if they break even, it will be a miracle,” says Ihm. “Well, who wants to work as hard as we do for a break even, you know?”
It’s a fair question, but Ihm doesn’t dwell too long on it. He shrugs it off just like he shrugs off the market, and the drought, and the potentially disastrous moment he had just before my arrival, when a cow clumsily pinned him to a pole and he couldn’t see out of one eye for twenty minutes. It’s just another day on the farm. You get up, you work hard, you take what she gives you and then you go to bed. In the morning, you wake up and do it all again. But each day brings a new challenge, and it’s exciting. Life becomes a daisy chain of good days and bad days, but in the end it’s long and fine. Maybe even beautiful.
“A lot of it is good management and a lot of it is just luck,” he says. “I could spend all my time worrying about every little thing. You’ve gotta do what you like, you know? I mean, it’s gonna be what it is. And I love what I do. I guess I’d rather just focus on the farm and let it ride.”
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Jason Ihm is fully prepared for the general public to forget about farmers again as evidence of the drought steadily fades into fields of green and gold. Pam Jahnke will keep doing what she’s doing, working to bridge that disconnect and focusing on the positives for farmers, who she calls “eternal optimists” because they know how bad it can be and “they don’t need to hear it” from her. If anything, she’d like to reach the rest of us, those who know as little about ag as I do.
“Why should the average consumer know? We’ve never told them. We are fantastic at producing the product, but up until recent history we have not been called on to try to educate the consumer actively about where that product comes from,” says Jahnke. “I’m not saying you need to burn a path down the driveway of a nearby farmer, but what I do ask is respect. If they’re still in the game, they deserve respect.”
Guys like Chuck Ripp and Jeff Endres will continue to brainstorm new ways to make things better for everyone while making their own operations more efficient, and the county will continue both direct services and community outreach through things like “Cows on the Concourse” and “Breakfast on the Farm.” Eighty undergrads will major in dairy science at UW–Madison this year, and forty grad students will pursue a master’s or doctoral degree before moving on to leadership positions, most likely in Wisconsin. Professors will continue to conduct groundbreaking research they’ll pass along in the classroom or on the farm through Extension. Another eighty to ninety people will go through the three- or six-week dairy farming short course, a program that’s been running strong since 1885. The sun will continue to rise up over the crops whether they’re scorched or lush, and the rains will come again. People will continue to complain about the cost of milk, or honk in frustration in long tractor lines. The disconnect between farmers and non-farmers might get better, particularly if we can understand where those shared benefits lie. Or it might not. Either way, dairy farming will continue to churn Wisconsin’s economy.
Berry Ridge Farms spreads like butter across both sides of Hyer Road west of Waunakee, operations humming softly to the north, a new feed bunker under construction to the south. The late-August sun climbs a vivid blue sky to set fire to the paprika dusting of tassels topping deceptively green cornfields. Jeff Endres scans the fields as we talk, almost like he’s addressing everybody out there as much as he is me.
This farm looks like any other on the outside, but the technological advances Endres and his brothers have implemented since the days of their forefathers are remarkable. Each cow is chipped, so at a computer glance they can see how much milk she’s producing down to the hundredth decimal, and each wears a blue motion-detector collar that lets them know when she’s ovulating, a practice that has reduced their use of hormones by eighty percent. The entire farm has been outfitted to maximize energy efficiency, and they invested $300,000 to build a manure pit, a move that won’t make them any money but “makes us a better steward of the land,” says Endres. What looks like regular old fields to me are actually complex patterns of strategically placed crops, some for feed, some for sale, some for soil protection, all mapped out by computer and each with its own nutrient management plan.
“There’s nobody farming today that can just go through the motions,” says Endres. “They have to be at the top of their game every day.”
Endres is especially frustrated by the cultural disconnect, and doesn’t believe more regulation is the answer. He wants to “knock down the barriers between the farm community and the environmentalists,” tell them that “we’re thinking on the same lines as you; it’s just a matter of getting the right practices in place.”
He has a vision for the future, one based on cost-sharing partnerships with sponsors and governmental agencies, driven by farmers themselves who’ve committed to responsible land practices, not because someone told them they had to, but because it’s mutually beneficial. He wants to get the projects into the hands of the farmers so they can experiment with what works and what doesn’t, “because if they’ve got an idea on their farm and they think they can do a better job with retaining phosphorus on the land, by God, let’s give ’em a crack at it.”
“My philosophy is if there’s a [conservation issue], farming isn’t the problem,” says Endres. “Farming is the answer to the problem.”
Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.
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