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