Mike Schuler, co-owner of Greendale Dairy in Kiel, can barely remember a time when he wasn’t thinking about farming.
“It’s something I feel like I was meant to do,” Schuler says. “I thought about doing other things, but it has always come back to farming for me. Even when I was young, I’d be in church thinking ‘boy I bet we could stack a lot of hay in here.’ I was always thinking about farming.”
Church aside, Schuler’s commitment to the farm comes naturally. Farming is in his blood – literally. Schuler is the sixth generation to work the farm that’s been in his family for more than 150 years. Schuler and his brother-in-law, Nic Schoenberger, co-own 560 cows and farm about 1,100 acres raising corn, alfalfa, wheat and soybeans.
The pair has embraced technology and attributes some of the dairy’s success to early adoption of high-tech tools.
“Technology gets me excited,” Schuler says. “We just switched to collars to track rumination. We do heat detection with it. We have a feeding software program we use quite extensively to help with tracking our costs. We just started doing genomic testing on our animals, and I’m excited to see those results. I think it can really help with our growth.”
Tracking rumination provides insight into cow health while genomic testing is an important tool to help producers make good breeding decisions for the longterm health and value of the herd.
Technology has also contributed to the growth of Sun Prairie-based Renk Seed Company. Renk Seed has operated as a seed distributor since 1934, but the Renk family has been farming the same south-central Wisconsin land since 1864. Jeff Renk, who co-owns the business with his younger brother, Brett, and cousin, Alex, is the fourth generation to head the company. Jeff Renk says the industry has changed quite a bit since his great-grandfather started selling seed, with the biggest transformation resulting from genetic modification technology.
“It was a game changer for our business. It created opportunities for a business like ours that previously wouldn’t have been available,” Renk says. “It certainly wasn’t without stress and a lot of hard work on our part to shepherd the business through that process, but it was a huge opportunity for our generation. The business has really thrived and taken on a whole new life compared to where we were 15 or 20 years ago.”
Renk Seed products include corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
Traditions Gain Traction
Philip Jones, president of Jones Dairy Farms in Fort Atkinson, says one of the biggest changes his 125-year-old sausage and bacon processing business has experienced is the change in the consumers’ interest in how foods they eat are made.
“The consumer has embraced more knowledge about what they’re consuming,” Jones says. “We’ve always prided ourselves in having minimal ingredients and clean ingredient statements. We never changed our product to fit the consumers’ needs, but the consumers today are recognizing how important ingredients such as pork, salt and spices are, compared to other additives or ingredients they can’t pronounce.”
Jones’ journey to the family business was a winding path.
“I was actually not in the family business,” he says. “I pursued a career as a chef. I was working outside the business for over 12 years before I started with the company. I’ve always been interested in the food industry, and it was a wonderful opportunity to come back and participate in the family business. That was back in 1991.”
Jones says operating a family business in Wisconsin has its advantages.
“There is a work ethic in the Midwest, and particularly in Wisconsin, where our employees take real pride in who they work for,” he says. “The family values here are such that they put a premium on good paying jobs and longevity. It’s very important to the residents – whether it’s locally or within the state, to have companies like ours. Ultimately, it’s about meeting consumer expectations and surpassing them. Wisconsin has a very long history of doing so.”
In addition to sausage and bacon, Jones Dairy products include ham, braunschweiger and scrapple.
Family Cheese Business Sees National Success
Sid Cook’s family has been making cheese in Wisconsin since 1883. His company, Carr Valley Cheese, is the most awarded cheese business in the world, having won 554 national and international awards in the last 10 years.
Carr Valley operates four processing plants, eight retail cheese stores and a distribution center. The company produces traditional American cheeses and artisan cheeses including Black Sheep Truffle, Cave Aged Marisa and Smoked Ba Ba Blue made from sheep’s milk. Carr also sells jams, jellies, butters, condiments and celebration cakes.
“When I bought the business, it was a small, country cheese factory, and we made about 1,200 to 1,400 pounds of cheese a day. We do a lot more cheese today, and things have changed,” Cook says. “Looking back, since I bought my dad’s factory, probably 100 other factories have closed. And when people would ask my dad, ‘Is Sid in the cheese business?’ he’d say, ‘Yeah, he’s in the cheese business; he just doesn’t know any better.’ I never gave up. I kept plodding forward and making things happen. I had a lot of passion, and I liked what I was doing and I figured out a way to continue doing it, make money and grow the business. I think that’s key in any family business.”