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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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.