The last time I visited the Alme dairy farm in the town of Dunkirk near Stoughton was in June 1993, a week before they were to host the Dane County Breakfast on the Farm.
The family didn't have to do much of the traditional painting and fixing up of the farmstead in preparation for the expected thousands of visitors as is done by most hosts of such a big event.
The Alme's just didn't have many old or timeworn farm buildings - a tornado that hit their farm in March two years prior had taken care of that.
In fact, their buildings were mostly new or remodeled and the new machine shed in which the crowd ate their farm breakfast wasn't even scheduled to be completed for another few months but the family had pushed construction ahead for the gathering.
"I remember the June Dairy Breakfast," Melvin Alme says. "It had rained and rained on the days before June 19, 1993 but some 4,400 people came. Our hay fields where the cars were to be parked were all mud and the cars had to be parked at the Stoughton Trailer plant a couple of miles up the road and the people were bussed to our farm."
Sons David and John remember the occasion also but note that they were a lot younger then - 19 years to be exact - and the new buildings are not so new anymore.
In 1993 the Alme family was milking about 70 cows in a traditional free stall barn; today they more than doubled the herd to 170 head that are housed in a freestall barn that was built in 1999 and milked in a double eight parlor.
The land acreage remains about the same at 750 acres with alfalfa and corn the main crops.
I noted that the alfalfa looked ready for cutting and asked when they were going to start making hay?
"Yes, it's ready and we'll begin bagging tomorrow (May 8)," David said. "That's early but its a strange year. We have our own bagger and have built a concrete slab that will hold most of the bags."
What about the two concrete stave silos standing tall next to the barn?
"They are 20 by 75 each but we use only one for oats and peas (our hay cover crops), the other has a bottom unloader that seems to require constant repair, so we don't use it often."
Melvin Alme, who at age 83 is sort of retired, was born on another farm about a half mile east. After returning from Army service in Korea in the early 1950s he worked on the family farm on a "share" arrangement.
"Dad (Erick) said I ought to buy this farm, Melvin explains. "He bought it in 1961 and I bought it from him in 1962."
Over the years the Alme farm has of course changed. David pretty much takes care of the crop side and John is the cow man, although as with most family farms, jobs are interchangeable. David's step son Mack Clark is the manure overseer (among other jobs) and John's daughter, Jenna, who graduated from Iowa State University on Saturday (May 5) was home milking cows two days later.
The Alme's, who are located in the heart of the historic Norwegian tobacco country, will raise but four acres this year. This is down from a peak of 22 acres some years ago.
Melvin remembers when every farm in the area raised tobacco and how the crop was the "mortgage lifter" for so many farm families.
He also remembers how a host of tobacco buyers competed to buy the crop from each farmer. Nowadays their is only on buyer, Swedish Match at Stoughton and the price and pounds of production are already determined.
Jenna Alme admits she want to be a dairy farmer and hopes there is opportunity to remain on the family farm but as with most such family operations, that would require a good bit of thought and change.
Why Iowa State?
"I had talked with our veterinarian, Dr. Ken Reese, of the Evansville Veterinary Clinic over the years. He had attend Iowa State and it sounded good," Jenna says. And, I liked the campus."
As part of her "agricultural studies" degree, which emphasized animal science and agronomy, she spent time working at the Leapold Center for Sustainable Agriculture located on the campus and enjoyed the experience.
What does she see for agriculture in coming years?
Consumers must realize that farms and farmers are good and that they work hard to produce good food, she says. They have to understand that the recent pink slime discussions don't make for bad food...it's a matter of lack of understanding.
"Agriculture will grow," she says. "And, there will be changes - I want to be a part of it."
The Alme family farm is not unusual among Wisconsin dairying.
In spite of a perception by some folks, mega farms are not taking over dairying. Less than 400 of our state's 11,500 dairy farms milk over 500 cows.
We have had a good number of families expand to the 1000-cow to 5000-cow operations but that takes a special kind of mindset and entrepreneurial bent. I feel that most of the folks who can take on this type of financial and management obligation have probably done so.
Yes, there will be expansions, even among the big herds, but the smaller multi family-owned dairies (like the Almes) will be around for a long time.
Most dairy farmers (and other business people) enjoy being close to the land and animals and do not want to become people managers overseeing a large employee force. They want to be "hands on" and see the land and livestock produce as a result of their own labor.
Look at the rather recent move to Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) where many of the owners were, or still are, holding down other jobs until they can become full-time farmers.
The results are evident in the expanding number of farmers markets now open in most every town or city. Consumers like to buy local and many people like to produce local.
A friend who was a highly paid state employee once explained to me that he hated what he was doing because he could never see the results of his efforts. Yes, his job was important and he did it well, but it was all about shuffling paper.
He envied farmers who at day's end could see the milk, grain, hay, cows or other livestock and knew they had accomplished something.
I don't know the future of the Alme family farm but would guess it is rosy. There will be much discussion, lots of planning and ultimate change but the family farm will survive and prosper -- just as it has for the past three generations.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.