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.
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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.
See larger versions of the images used in this story here.