How family farms are coping with the ever-evolving industry

It is well known that Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production. After all, it’s the reason Green Bay Packers fans proudly embrace the “cheesehead” label, despite the team’s name itself deriving from the meat packing industry. Perhaps this statistic is why our state can still claim the title of America’s Dairyland, despite decades of lagging behind California in overall production of milk. 

“I don’t know when Wisconsin became known as… America’s Dairyland,” said Farmington township dairy farmer Bill Thiel, who farms with his wife Linda, “but the peak of dairymen [in the state] was 103,000 in 1959.”

Alas, this figure is no more. That number has dwindled to 8,419 as of last year, and is continuing to drop at a rate of around 4%. 

“I remember being told back in the ‘80s that 20 percent of the dairymen would be gone in five years,” Bill said. “It couldn’t be, ‘cause there were 54 dairymen in Farmington township in 1982… you thought they [were] wrong, and then, by golly, it happened.”

The decline in Osceola township has been similarly dismal. In 1975, the township possessed 25 dairy farms. Now, just one remains. But what became of the other 24?

Perhaps Mike Mallin has a clue. His family was in the dairy business for “many, many years, ‘til we burned down in ‘99.”

After the fire, the Mallins did not bother to reopen.

“The industry said you needed to go to more cows,” Mallin said. “Then we decided, my father was getting up there in age, it was time to get out. I work for the Village of Osceola now.”

Urbanization, Linda Thiel asserts, also has an impact.

“The [Twin] Cities moving out this way has put a higher value to the property, to the land, so that to actually take and buy it for agricultural use is not sustainable,” she said.  

Opal Haase, who runs Hillview Dairy with her husband Bill and their sons Jared and Jason, offered a more optimistic perspective. 

“Just because a farm goes out doesn’t mean they went under. Maybe they have chosen that they no longer want to milk cows, maybe they would like to try something else,” Opal said. “A lot of times it’s because of the circumstances… maybe it’s the long hours that they want to change and get out of, or maybe they just feel that it would be a better lifestyle for their family or that they could get a lot of money for selling their land, and maybe they could retire or do something different. There’s so many reasons to exit dairy that I wouldn’t say they went under. I would never say that about any farm, especially a dairy farm.”

Hillview, which has been in the Haase family since Bill’s relatives bought it from a Civil War widow in 1887, has locations in both Somerset and Farmington townships. The former site is where calves are born and raised, while the latter is where cows are milked. At the time of the couple’s high school graduation in 1971, the farm milked 16 cows. That number reached 50 by 1978, thanks to an expansion of the original barn in Somerset. In 2004, the Haases built a new milking parlor in Farmington township, and now they milk over 500 cows.

“We went from 16 cows and we were able to get enough stuff paid off that we could build a new barn and milk more cows, and we’ve always milked more and more cows to pay for everything,” Opal said. “We’ve taken the risk of purchasing land and borrowing money to do that, and then some of the times the land prices would go down or something and cattle prices would go down, but we were able to see our way through those down times, and then you go on to the next part.”

While the Haases may be staying above water, Wisconsin is also ranked first for farm bankruptcies, a trend that has persisted for the last three years, and farms here, particularly dairy farms, are smaller than the national average, which a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article suggests is an underlying factor behind the bankruptcies. Despite this, however, Community Homestead, Osceola’s agriculture-focused cooperative organization that advocates for adults with special needs, feels content about the size of their dairy.

“We’re very small by what’s become conventional standards. We’re small even by organic standards,” dairy manager Eric Witt said. Their milking parlor is designed for 36 cows. “Most dairies have had to expand to at least 100, 200 cows or much bigger. In a way, being able to remain small is one way to gauge success. It is our goal to continue to be small… and we don’t really have the infrastructure or the fields to get much bigger. A lot of dairies have been forced to get big or get out. Our hope would be to stay small and stay in.”

The Thiels milk a similar number of cows, but like many other small-time dairy farmers, they have sought additional employment.

“In 2000, both Linda and I took off-the-farm jobs,” Bill Thiel said. “Knowing the farm needed a little boost, we needed to get some more income without necessarily milking more cows. In 2000… we were maybe milking 50 cows.” 

At that time, the Thiels had four dependent children. Bill took a job at NorthWire, while Linda worked at St. Croix Floral and later Pharmasan, which was shut down by the government in late 2017. 

“[Taking second jobs] helped us get through,” Bill acknowledged, “but now, the last six, seven years, farm income as a whole has declined and suffered terribly. Even with the supplement of off-farm income.” Excess milk production has created a surplus, leading to quotas from distributors such as the Thiels,’ Land-O-Lakes, and milk prices are stagnant. 

Generational demographics don’t exactly paint a pretty picture either. The average age of an American dairy farmer is 58, a number that has risen for the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and the next generation often are uninterested in taking over their aging parents’ farms. One of the Thiels’ five sons would someday like to convert the dairy to a tree farm, while another would rent the land out to a larger entity.

“[The dairy crisis] has changed our outlook on how and when we can retire,” Linda said. “We [only] have thoughts [about retiring].”

Even the optimistic Haases had to take a sober outlook on what the future may entail.

“We’ve been through these down cycles before, but this one’s probably longer than most of the cycles have been. The prices have been low for a longer time than we’ve seen in our lifetime,” Opal said. 

In spite of the hardships and uncertainties, however, the Thiels say they cannot regret choosing a life in dairy farming.

“I don’t think we’d have changed anything that we’ve done. I always thought [the farm] was the place for raising the kids,” Linda said.

Bill agreed. “That’s the best crop that we raised.”

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