Family dairy draws customers to farm
MARSHFIELD - Dairy production might seem like a static enterprise to consumers who can reliably find milk, cheese and ice cream in their usual spots at the grocery store.
Talk with a farmer, however, and a different story emerges.
Just ask Ken and Karen Seehafer, who operate a 300-cow farm north of Marshfield along with six employees, including their son and daughter in law.
Medium-sized dairies such as the Seehafers’ are becoming less common as farms get bigger. The United States had 18,000 fewer farms in 2015 compared to a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet as the number of farms decreases, average farm sizes are increasing.
“We’re up against the guy with three, four thousand cows,” Ken Seehafer said.
But what the Seehafers lack in scale they make up for in other ways.
For one thing, there is a deep sense of history that comes with continuing to farm on property passed down through generations, in this case from Ken’s grandparents, who started farming in the early 1900s.
Technology has helped make work more efficient. Ken grew up baling hay by hand, but today tractors steered by satellites plant crops, which can be harvested at a rate of 30 acres per hour. Milking equipment has seen major advancements, too.
The Seehafers also have diversified their operations: They opened a store on the farm about two years ago, along State 97. The store sells freshly bottled milk and cheese branded with the Seehafer name, and a wide variety of local products, including syrup, honey, ice cream and pizzas made in Stratford. The farm also offers tours, hosts a corn maze in the fall and gives sleigh rides in the winter.
That strategy is on par with advice from the U.S. Department of Labor. While it projects overall agricultural jobs will see a decline within the coming decade, an agency report found that "job prospects will be good for an increasing number of small-scale farmers who have developed successful market niches that involve personalized, direct contact with their customers.”
Still, the Seehafers say their main focus is on producing quality milk and maintaining a clean and welcoming farmstead. Their milk has won awards, and they hosted the state’s Farm Technology Days in 2011, which drew about 60,000 people from all over the state.
“I always said I was driven by pride, not the price of milk,” Ken Seehafer said. “It’s not about money. It’s enjoying this lifestyle in the country.”