Wisconsin is losing dairy farms at a rapid rate, driven out by milk prices that often don't even cover expenses. A cherished way of life, rich in family traditions, is at stake along with a livelihood that’s supported rural Wisconsin for more than a century.
Those dairy farmers who remain slash expenses, take off-farm jobs, go deeper in debt and endure financial, physical and emotional strain.
As part of a yearlong project, journalists from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin are following dairy farms of different sizes at a time when the state's rural landscape and cultural identity could be altered permanently.
Wylymar Farms: 'It was always my dream'
Owner/operators: Emily and Brandi Harris
Herd size: Milking 40 Jerseys
How they are addressing the downturn: Brandi has taken an off-farm job as an administrative assistant at Blackhawk Technical College in Monroe, so she and Emily have health insurance and can pay other bills. They've downsized their milking herd to about 40 cows and keep fixing old equipment instead of taking out loans to replace it.
Organic dairy farmers Emily and Brandi Harris
Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MONROE - This has been the winter Emily Harris said she will never forget. Frozen water pipes in the milking parlor, a busted barn cleaner. A silo unloader that wouldn’t run in the extreme cold. A barn roof that’s failing.
Some days, Harris said, you can hardly touch anything without it breaking.
“And the extra money just isn’t there for repairs.”
Harris is a fourth-generation farmer and U.S. Navy veteran. She started farming with her grandfather in 2003, raising beef, and went on her own seven years later in dairy. She runs an organic dairy farm tucked away on 100 acres in the Driftless Region of southern Wisconsin.
“It was always my dream, always what I wanted to do,” she said.
But it’s been a hard road. The place, now named Wylymar Farms, was in bad shape when she acquired it.
Fence gates were missing; the land hadn’t been touched for a year.
“You couldn’t even see the barn doors through the weeds,” Harris said.
Her barn was built in the late 1800s then expanded in the 1940s and '70s. Its roof has started to go bad, a death knell for some old farm buildings.
The newest tractor is about 50 years old.
“Everything’s in need of some sort of repair,” Harris said.
When something breaks, it can cost thousands. And that’s even with the former Navy construction equipment mechanic doing the work.
“We fix a lot ourselves,” she said.
She and her wife, Brandi, have downsized to milking 40 Jersey cows. They’ve pulled every lever imaginable to cut expenses as the price for their organic milk, once a profitable niche, has fallen.
"A lot of our income needed to make repairs, or to do something like replace a roof, used to come from selling 20 heifers for about $20,000," Harris said. "Now, heifers aren't worth $300 each. We've lost any extra income we used to have."
She and Brandi have considered other types of farming such as growing vegetables or hemp. But it’s not what they know — and a lot of other people are getting into those fields as dairy declines.
They plan to keep milking cows through the summer and then evaluate their plans for the rest of the year.
“There are going to have to be some decisions made,” Emily said.
That said, farming is in her blood, and she enjoys the outdoors and the physical labor. It all came together on a recent winter day:
“Nothing broke. The barn cleaner ran, the silo unloader ran, everything went like clockwork. The chainsaw fired right up, and I was cutting and dragging logs. … I was busy all day, but I wasn’t stressed.
"It was a great day.”
— Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Briggs Family Farm: 'We're day-to-day right now'
Owner/operators: Jim and Jenny Briggs, along with their son, Justin
Founded: November 2014
Herd size: The Briggses milk about 56 cows. Counting heifers, calves and dairy steers, they own about 100 head of cattle.
How they are addressing the downturn: They rely on Jenny Briggs' off-farm job as a surgical nurse for the Bone & Joint Center in Rib Mountain for income and health insurance. Even with that job, "we're day-to-day right now," Jim Briggs said. "Essentially, even since we bought the farm, the majority of time have had depressed milk prices."
Briggs Family Farm's day-to-day work and routine
T'xer Zhon Kha, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
FRANKFORT - Even before Jim and Jenny Briggs bought their dairy farm north of Stratford, they knew the struggles they would face.
Jim, 43, grew up on a dairy farm about 25 miles southwest of Boston. The dairy, started by Jim's grandfather, was "somewhat unique," Jim said. "We were able to make it by bottling and selling our own milk."
That direct-to-consumer business model worked for two generations. But in the early 2000s, pressure from a variety of fronts began to plague the business. Urban sprawl was taking chunks of property that Jim and his parents once rented to grow hay and other feed for the dairy herd. And increasing regulations regarding the direct sale of the milk made it very difficult for the small operation to make a go of it.
The family sold out in 2004.
Jim and Jenny were dating at the time. They met online — not through a dating app, but an agriculture and farming chat room. Jenny, who lived in southeast Iowa, moved to the Boston area as Jim's family was going through the process of shutting down the farm.
The stress of selling the farm was intense. "Honestly, I still wrestle with it today," Jim said. "It's still challenging, it's still a demon."
Jim and Jenny got married, and moved back to the area where Jenny grew up.
Jim got jobs on Iowa farms, one a family dairy operation, another a larger crop grower. They were good jobs.
"They were nice people, and they paid well," Jim said.
But the allure of owning their own farm was strong. They decided central Wisconsin might be a good place to start.
Jenny applied for and got a nursing job at the Bone & Joint Center in Rib Mountain in 2014, and the couple lived in a camper for about six months while they searched for property.
They bought land, a house and outbuildings in the town of Frankfort, and began building the business virtually from scratch. Jim had collected some equipment and tools through the years, but other things had to be purchased, including new cattle.
"We started out with close to a half million dollars in debt," Jim said. "A normal person would look at it and say, 'No way.'"
To this day, they could not pull it off financially without Jenny's nursing job, which provides the family a steady income and health insurance. They need that money to subsidize the farm.
Farming is addicting, Jim said.
"After a while, the dairying, it's like a disease. It gets in you, and you can't get away from it sometimes."
— Keith Uhlig, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Thewis family farm: 'It's what I know how to do'
Owner/operators: Michael and Jennifer Thewis, owners; their son, Peter, and his wife, Kendra, work full time on the farm and hope to be the next-generation owners.
Herd size: Milking 130 cows.
How they are addressing the downturn: No outside employees; they do all of the work themselves. Jennifer works full time as a librarian in Mellen.
Thewis Valley Farm: 'This is our lifestyle. Our legacy'
Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MELLEN - Thirty miles south of Ashland, in a part of northern Wisconsin known for forests, copper mines and the Lake Superior shoreline, Kendra Thewis has an unlikely occupation: dairy farmer.
She and her husband, Peter, milk 130 cows on a farm owned by Peter’s parents, Michael and Jennifer Thewis. It’s been in their family for 84 years.
Kendra and Peter hope to be the next generation. They work on the farm day and night, raising their children, milking cows, taking care of livestock, planting and harvesting crops.
And Kendra cares about it. A lot.
“This is our lifestyle. Our legacy. It’s not just a job for us," she said. "It’s working to produce a quality product to feed people.”
Kendra Thewis posted a plea for help to Facebook about her dairy farm
But that legacy could be slipping away as farm milk prices, adjusted for inflation, have sunk to some of the lowest levels in a half century.
In the 10 years she’s been on the farm with her husband, Kendra said the milk price has only been “decent” one year.
“It makes you feel dumb sometimes. Like why do I keep doing this when it costs more to feed the cows … than what we’re making? But, for me, I do it because I love it and because it’s all I’ve ever known. I was born on a farm, raised on a farm, and have lived on a farm for 33 years,” she said.
“Even when I went away to college, I worked on the lab farm there. So cows have always been my life. The calves, they are my babies.”
Farming in northern Wisconsin is especially challenging. The climate is more suited to pine trees than feed corn. The growing season is short, and grain and supplies have to be shipped in from other places.
“Beautiful country, but as far as farming goes, it’s rough,” Kendra said.
She grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, so like Peter she’s no stranger to the ups and downs of milk prices. But this downturn, now in its fifth year, is one of the longest in decades.
“I don’t know what the future holds. It makes me so nervous,” Kendra said.
In 2009, six months after she and Peter were married, the barn burned, killing 24 cows and destroying the milking parlor. Dairy farmers were mired in a slump then, too.
Her in-laws borrowed money to rebuild the milking parlor and replace the cows lost in the fire. It was the only way to keep the dairy operation going.
“My husband and I have been looking for ways that we can become (their) successors, but debt has been an issue for the past 10 years. I believe it is a combination of consistently low milk prices and the barn fire we had," Kendra said.
Jennifer has a full-time job as a librarian in Mellen.
Michael runs a school bus business. And he does "a ton of the work" on the farm, Kendra said, including the 4:30 a.m. milking and taking care of livestock.
Peter drives a school bus sometimes, in addition to putting in long hours on the farm.
She and Peter’s children, Skyler, 4, and Starr, 7, are part of the farm — just like their parents were when they were growing up.
She and Peter met while in college at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Kendra has a bachelor’s degree in marketing communications, with an agriculture emphasis, while Peter has a bachelor’s in agricultural business.
What keeps her farming?
“Just crazy I guess,” she quipped.
But it’s a treasured way of life and a decent livelihood when times are good. Sometimes in the barn, she can forget about the bad stuff for a while.
“It’s amazing to see a calf born, new life, knowing you can take care of it well,” she said. “And even when I get annoyed, it’s what I know how to do.”
— Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Hornstead Dairy: 'We're going to come out of this'
Operators/owners: Lori and Brian Horn (mom and dad); Tom and Elizabeth Horn (brother and sister-in-law); Amber and Kevin Leiterman
Herd size (all animals): 3,000
How they are addressing the downturn: The herd and farm have modernized and expanded in the last five years.“We need see what we can cut here, cut there, and still make this work as efficiently as possible, or more efficiently,” Amber Horn-Leiterman said.
Hornstead Dairy: A family affair
BRILLION - On a day when frigid weather shut down most of Wisconsin, Amber Horn-Leiterman and her family were outside feeding calves.
Facing polar vortex temperatures of 20 degrees below zero and wind chills of negative 50, Horn-Leiterman, two of her children, and her mom and dad bundled up and moved along a line of small hutches, clearing snow and filling pails with whole milk.
Dairy farming doesn’t stop for bad weather. It doesn’t stop when milk prices are bad.
And, despite technological advances, it's still very much a hands-on job.
The morning hours were spent feeding young animals and making sure water was available to the milk cows in the barn, as well as checking the function of the manure handling system and dealing with a broken pipe.
“It didn’t feel hectic,” Horn-Leiterman said during a lull before lunch. “It’s just what you had to do.”
She grew up farming with her family. That’s part of what brought the 36-year-old back to Brillion in eastern Wisconsin, where she works daily with her parents, brother and other members of the family.
A graduate of Brillion High School and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Horn-Leiterman considered going to law school, but pursued internships in agribusiness before being drawn back to the hands-on work of production agriculture.
Ultimately, that led back to working on the family farm, a decision reinforced by her desire to give her four sons, ages 2 to 13, a childhood similar to her own.
“There’s nothing cooler than hanging out with your grandpa in the milking parlor, or your grandma. My grandma milked cows when I was in high school,” Horn-Leiterman said. “Now my kids are tooling around with grandma and grandpa.”
The 156-year-old farm completed an expansion in 2017 (planned five years previous) that saw the number of cows it was able to milk at any given time grow from 900 to 1,500 — one of the ways the farm has evolved to support several families and the farm’s 19 full-time employees.
Like other farmers across the state and nation, they continue to deal with depressed milk prices that are eating into equity and forcing some producers to make tough choices, including the decision to leave the business.
Hornstead Dairy is putting off equipment purchases and trimming expenses — both those related to the farm and to the people working it.
“This (downturn) has lasted longer than it’s ever lasted,” she said. “There are farmers out there still recovering from either 2009 or 2012 ... so it’s really put a financial damper on, I’d say, everybody.”
With a herd size of 3,000, the farm is a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, regulated by state permits and rules, many of which required facility improvements and other large-scale investments aimed at controlling runoff and other environmental impact.
Horn-Leiterman said she’s an optimist and sees better days somewhere in the future.
“I know it’s a cycle, because that’s what I’ve experienced in the past,” she said. “My previous experience tells me we’re going to come out of this, and it’s going to be better."
— Nathan Phelps, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin