Decades ago, back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s and before, Wisconsin farms were generally passed from generation to generation — most often from the oldest son to the oldest son to the oldest son, and daughters didn't count.
That son often worked as an employee for very small wages on the often unwritten promise he would take over the farm when the parents decided to retire. The farm was considered the parents' "retirement."
Sometimes the retired parents and the operating generation lived in the same big farm house, and sometimes the parents moved to a new location — maybe down the road to a farmhouse that might be a part of acreage added over the years; maybe to a new house built elsewhere on the farm, or next to the old farmhouse; and perhaps even to the nearby city or village.
In many cases, the parents kept working on the farm while getting their retirement income (as the next generation paid off on the land contract), with the dad keeping some operating and financial control. When the parents died, the farm ownership passed to the son and his family, and a new cycle began.
Transferring the farm to the next generation seemed easy (in retrospect) but probably really wasn't. But farms were smaller, land was less expensive and that's the way things worked.
Along the way, laws changed, and parents couldn't just "give" the farm to the next generation, and there was more money involved in the operation, what with new, modern buildings and equipment. It took a bigger financial risk for the next generation — if there was one — who wanted to farm.
And, not all sons and daughters wanted to farm, and many farmers discouraged their offspring from even thinking about farming. "Farming is too hard work, every day of every year with no vacations," they told their children. "Get a steady job with weekends off. Go to college and be a professor, a doctor, lawyer or scientist."
And they did, and the farm was eventually sold, probably to a neighbor.
Then there are the many farms where a son worked on the farm for many years with the promise he would ultimately own the farm. But too often, on his parents' death, it was found that the promise was never put in a will or other legal document.
Thus, the farm was inherited by the son and his brothers and sisters who were never involved in the farm. In order to continue farming, the farming son had to buy everyone out, which he couldn't always afford to do.
So it went, another farm gone.
Plans did work
Most of today's large, often called mega farms, are the result of serious planning on the part of the family. Yet, many of the state's 9,700 operating dairy farms are family owned, small and remain without a succession plan in place.
Over the years, I've written about these farms in this column. The parents are now nearing retirement age and have no family members ready to take over. The children are long gone. They saw no future in remaining on the farm, even though they might have wanted to do so. There was never a family plan or even a discussion of such, so they moved on.
In recent months, there has been emphasis across the state on succession planning. UW Extension, Farm Credit and the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin have held many well-attended meetings on the subject. It's obvious that many farm families are indeed thinking about the subject.
118 years ago
In 1898, Math Endres bought a 160-acre farm near Waunakee, in Dane county. He added an additional 160 acres 14 years later. The two farms remained separate and were passed on to sons Joseph and Aloysius. In 1951, Bill's dad, Laverne, purchased the home farm and 10 years later bought his uncle's farm. The 320 acres remains in the Endres family.
LaVerne died while in his 50s in 1973, leaving the farm to his wife, Jeanette, and their nine children (three girls and six sons).
"I was the oldest son and had no plans to farm," Bill said. "After high school, I worked for two years as a builder while also working with my mom on the farm."
In 1974, Bill Endres and Kathy Burke were married and continued to operate the farm with Bill's brother, Howie.
Buying the farm
"Over the years, I realized I had to own something or get out of farming," Bill said. "In 1982, we bought the farm on a land contract. We had ownership of a 50-cow operation and mother had a regular income for many years.
"By the mid 80s, Kath and I realized we weren't doing well. We had a serious talk and decided we had to make changes. She was the manager, and I did the work, and our decision was to specialize in dairying and to be successful at that, and she proceeded to find out what the ten top DHI dairy herds were doing. "
Among their efforts to do so, they attended the UW-Extension "Large Dairy Herd" seminar held in Madison (that is were I first met Bill and Kathy Endres).
"We went to 150 cows, added a freestall, bunkers and more buildings," Bill saidath met with sales people, designed the breeding program and managed everything. I was the worker. "
In May 1995, Kathy died and Bill turned to several consultants (Chris Allen, Merrimac, agronomist; Dr. Bob Rowe, herd health; and Graham Webster, Mount Horeb, management) to assist with the farming operation. "They are still with me today," Bill said.
"Joe Ziegler, a local farm boy who was dating my daughter Heather, began working with me as a hired man," Bill explained.
They married in 1997 and became seriously involved in the farm. "He really knows cows," Bill said.
Things went well on the dairy farm, and Bill suggested the Zieglers become 50/50 partners with him on the dairy.
"I saw it as a logical move, and I put everything in to it," he said.
On Jan. 1, 2003, Woodland Creek Dairy LLC was formed, and the beginning of the transition to the next generation began.
"Many farmers resist giving up ownership until it is too late and the farm is sold. I felt it was something I just had to do," Bill said. "We respect each other and make joint decisions ... it works well."
In 2016, Bill Endres, Joe Ziegler and longtime employee Stefan Endres run the farm and are milking 190 cows. The Zieglers have three daughters. Bill and his wife, Deb ( a teacher in the Waunakee school system), who were married in 1998, live in a modern home about a half mile from the farmstead. Oh yes, Bill is near full recovery from a December heart valve operation.
Endres believes every farm family should plan for the future of their family farm business, especially if they have family members that would or could be the next generation.
Unlike Bill Endres, many farm families "don't get around to such planning" and the farm ends up being sold, as the myriad of vacant barns all across Wisconsin will attest to.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him firstname.lastname@example.org.