Editor’s note: Weston and Jenni Patnode took over the family farm in 2007, a fourth generation dairy farm located in a valley north of the unincorporated community of Arkansas, WI, in Pepin County, purchased by Weston’s grandfather Warren Patnode in 1942.
For 10 years, the couple worked the small dairy farm, milking their herd of registered Holsteins – the first introduced when Weston’s father, Wayne, took over the operation – and raising their family.
This innovative couple introduced their first genomic heifer into the herd in 2014, with high hopes for the future. Which is why the June 14, 2017,entry in Jenni’s blog titled Faith.Family.Farming. is so heart-breaking.
This – THIS is what it looks like when a 4th generation family farm milks their cows in the barn for the VERY last time. A very gut-wrenching and heartbreaking moment. Tonight, the last cow on Patnode Lane was milked. Tomorrow morning, the alarm will go off early – 4:30 a.m., to board our dairy cows on trucks and trailers for them to live on other farms. The end of an era, four generations of cows milking in this little red barn, has come to an end.
Weston was 8 years old when he knew he wanted to grow up to be a farmer. He bought his first dairy cow at a sale when he was 13 years old. Proud of that cow and the cow family she came from, being a dairy farmer ran through his veins at an early age. His great-grandpa milked cows, his grandpa, his Dad, and he knew he wanted to continue in their footsteps.
It was fitting of course that we met when we were 15 and 17 years old, showing dairy cattle at the local county fair. Two teenagers who fell fast in love. He taught me how to milk cows, and we rocked out in the crosswalk of the barn during chore time to the latest and greatest 90s hits on the radio. Every once in a while a slow song would come on, and I would convince him to slow dance with me in the barn, swaying to the music and the beats of the cows milking next to us.
This life changed
We envisioned this life. A small dairy farming family here on Patnode Lane. Our kids growing up, playing in the hay mound, bottle feeding the calves, and rocking out to their favorite songs as the cows milked. We pictured our memories in this little red barn.
But then, it all changed. Every year, milk prices fell faster and faster. We tried to ride out the tide. Some years were good, others were hard. Very hard. There were years milk prices dropped below what his Dad had been getting paid for milk in the 80s, and we wondered how much longer we could hold on.
Coming to a fork in the road: Do we go bigger, or do we sell out of this vision of being a small dairy farm in Western Wisconsin? Trust me, this decision isn’t one we took lightly. In fact, making this decision felt like a tug of war between what our hearts said, and what the bank account said. This decision was a gut-wrenching feeling knowing we would be giving up on the only dream Weston had envisioned his entire life.
Fork in the road
My husband, he is a smart dairy guy. He went to UW-Madison Short Course for Ag Business. He had bull contracts from AI companies, a classified and registered herd, cows milking on average 85+ pounds per day in an old tie-stall barn, and he knew how to play the genetics game. He did everything. Tried everything, studied everything, and learned everything. He did every single thing right. But yet, we have come to this conclusion —– small dairy farms just don’t work anymore.
Truth is, we don’t have the means or man power to grow either. And we can’t compete with 5,000 cow dairies. Our kids are only 8 and 4 – and not ready to make a life commitment to be farmers.
Expanding our farm meant going farther in debt then what we could make cash flow. It meant making financial decisions that would affect our kids and future generations without them having a say in it. And, not having a 100% guarantee that it would work. So, here we sat, this fork in the road.
Choosing a path
I have a feeling a lot of small family-owned dairies have sat at this same fork in the road. I have a feeling there are a lot of conversations around the kitchen table, while staring at piles of bills, about what the next move is. I have a feeling there are a lot of sleepless nights, pits in their stomachs, and never-ending tears trying to decide which path to choose.
To expand the family farm for another generation, or to sell the cows and walk away. It’s a hard decision. As much as we want to push and shove on something that isn’t working, we know that God is telling us that the door on this chapter is closed. I have a feeling we aren’t the only ones that have had this chapter closed and wondered, what next?
He is a farmer
Farming isn’t just WHAT Weston did, it is WHO he IS—to the very core, and the blood that runs through his veins. He is a farmer.
I know the farm created him into the man he is, and I am forever thankful for that. His patience, his compassion, his willingness to problem solve, or adjust to situations, along with his hard work ethic. All things he learned from the farm that overflow into his life and made him into the man he is. And for that I am grateful.
I’m grateful for the years we had together in the barn. The early years when I learned how to milk cows. I’m grateful for the slow dances in the walkway as the cows milked. I’m grateful for our dates to cattle auctions where some of our best and funniest memories were made.
I’m grateful for the memories our two boys had in the barn—feeding baby calves, chasing the barn cats, seeing baby calves being born late at night, and seeing their Dad give it his all into something he loved.
I’m grateful that God allowed us to add this piece of life to our memory box. I’m grateful that in this time, we learned to draw closer into Him and lean on Him when it wasn’t our own understanding. I’m grateful that He held us close when we felt it all slip away, and I’m grateful that I know He has other plans for us. Even if we don’t understand what they are yet.
The last cow has been milked. I never imagined saying, or typing those words. They make the tears well up in my eyes as I write them. The door on Patnode Lane Holsteins is closed for ever, but the next chapter is just beginning…
You can visit Jenni's blog at faithfamilyfarmingblog.wordpress.com/