Wisconsin’s dairy industry has grown tremendously in the past century. Farmers are milking more cows, many farms have become incorporated and technology has allowed for innovations in the industry that have increased production and efficiency.
But one thing hasn’t changed: 99 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farms are still family-owned and operated by the descendants of the families who began raising dairy cows six generations ago.
“From the very beginning, the Wisconsin dairy industry has been all about family,” says dairy farmer Shelly Mayer, who is also the executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. “That’s what makes it so vibrant. It’s really the secret to our success – a family farm will weather the storms and stay around when a corporate business may not.”
Many family dairy farms in the state have become corporations on paper, which may lead consumers to envision a false picture of big-business agriculture. But family dairy farms are actually becoming corporations for tax and business planning purposes so they can remain family-owned for years to come – which is a smart move for the farmers and a great benefit to Wisconsin, Mayer says.
“Rather than having these people taking farms and dividing them up, family members are coming back to the central family farm,” she says. “From the outside, it looks like these businesses are getting bigger and bigger, but they are growing by generations. To support multiple family members under one roof, businesses have grown. That is really exciting.”
The Larsons in Evansville are a perfect example.
“The Larson family has been farming in this township for over 90 years,” says Mike Larson. “We have continually been growing – meaning family members, land base and animal numbers.”
When Mike was growing up on his parents’ farm, the family milked 80 cows. Now, Larson Acres is an incorporated business that milks almost 3,000 cows.
“I don’t compare big and small farms; there’s not a difference in my opinion,” he says. “But I can compare how we did things when we were smaller to how we do things now. I just know for a fact that even though we have over 2,500 cows now, we’re able to do a much better job with individual cow comfort than we were with 80 cows, just because we’re able to specialize people with the jobs they really like to do. Everybody’s not having to do everything.”
Not all farms have a story like the Larsons – Wisconsin’s dairy industry is extremely diverse. Of the more than 10,500 dairy farms in the state, there are rotational grazing operations, organic producers and conventional dairy farms of all sizes.
Families like the Walkers of Walk-Era Farms, Inc., in Wisconsin Dells have managed to stay small through diversification and improvements in technology. While many of the larger farms have added more cows to generate revenue, Walk-Era has broadened its focus to selling grain and specializing in genetics in addition to milking 100 cows. This diversification allows the farm to support four families, says Marci Walker.
Larson says he believes no matter how big or small the farm is, family-run farms stay committed to values that have been passed down through the generations: treating people and animals fairly, producing an exceptional product and caring for the land.
“When you have these businesses that are five or more generations old, that’s what builds the community around them,” Mayer says. “These core values don’t just impact the land, but they’re also shaping churches, schools and other businesses.”
And growing the farm to encourage more family members to be a part of it allows those values to survive. With more than 300 career options in the dairy industry, more and more young people are coming back to the farm.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you don’t know the story by driving by a building,” Mayer says. “It’s really about the people behind the scenes – everyone has a story.”