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