Growing the next best crop for agriculture - youth
WAUKESHA - In a county where farms are scarce and dairy farms even more rare, Tom and Joan Oberhaus love their small family farm on Highway 18 in the Town of Delafield in Waukesha County. The crops they grow feed their 150 animals and provide pumpkins for local families and school children.
Yet, the one crop no one sees from the road as suburbanites rush to work every day is the crop of youth the couple has nurtured over the past 20 years, providing life lessons of growing, loss and life on a farm.
Cozy Nook Farm, one of four farms hosting ACE (Agricultural Community Engagement®) On-the-Farm Twilight meetings the last week of August, consists of 175 acres, plus 80 acres rented, milking 70 to 75 cows with about 150 animals on the farm. They also grow more than 20 acres of pumpkins and sell 1,600 Christmas trees each year.
The meetings are put on by the Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Towns Association and the Professional Dairy Producers (PDPW).
The farm started in Brookfield in an area now known as Gehrke's Corners until being bought out to make room for more roads when Joan's family bought the farm in the Town of Delafield.
Joan's parents started in the pumpkin business more than 50 years ago as "something to put the kids through college," Tom explained.
When Tom and Joan came to the farm in 1985, "there was another mouth to feed," so they started the Christmas tree operation. Providing a "good product at a fair price," Tom said they sell every tree, "which doesn't happen very often in the Christmas tree business."
Working with a Brookfield 4-H club, Tom and Joan find a plentiful supply of farm workers by opening their doors to 4-H members who want to show animals at the Waukesha County Fair.
"You make a lot of connections," said Tom. "There are really great kids out there."
Kids from suburbs who might not have had the chance to see a cow outside of the limited exposure at the fair, have gone on to become vets, major in dairy science and work at farms.
"It's a pretty phenomenal thing when you go to a high school graduation and a young girl is telling her uncle she's going into dairy science and he says, what?" Tom said. "It's a neat story."
The 4-H experience at Cozy Nook Farm began when Joan's dad's generation decided there wouldn't be any cows at the Waukesha County Fair if they didn't do something. They formed a group and the next year put a "cute calf" in a pen and said, if people wanted to show a calf they should call the farm, Joan explained.
One family participated the first year. Word spread. Two years ago, Joan said they had more than 20 kids coming to show 35 to 40 animals at the Waukesha County Fair.
With 22 families coming to the farm, bringing cousins, it gets to be too much, Joan said.
"But we've been thrilled to share our dairy story with them along the way," Joan added. "We are very proud of all of them."
4-H members are responsible for teaching the animal to lead, said Joan. in the process they learn how the animal grows.
"They learn about life and death, which kids aren’t exposed to. And they aren’t exposed to the realities of real life - you know, she’s not going to be here forever," Joan explained. "That’s real hard for some of them and some of them have quit because of it. It’s our business, we are sharing it with you, but you need to realize we aren’t keeping this cow because you showed her. But some of those realities are really hard on those kids. They learn life lessons that they will have forever."
Christopher Szczech is one of the youths who benefitted from working at Cozy Nook Farm. Neither of his parents had a farm background. He joined 4-H when he was in second grade and met the Oberhaus family through the 4-H club.
"They were so kind letting us show their animals and without that exposure and meeting those people I wouldn’t have had the chance to come and learn the different things about the cows," said Christopher during the PDPW meeting.
He learned and grew as a showman and took third place in showmanship at the Waukesha County Fair this summer.
"I was very excited about that," Christopher said. "I had the amazing experience of helping birth a calf that was from a cow that I showed for two years. Thank you to them for opening up their farm to multiple families that would have had no exposure to agriculture."
Shelly Mayer, executive director of Professional Dairy Producers, worked with a couple of youth from the Brookfield 4-H club. They were well spoken and learned about manners, work ethic, and agriculture because of Joan and Tom.
"If it wasn't for these guys, they never would have seen a cow," said Mayer. "There have been countless kids they've brought in and inspired."
Mayer said she's worked with youth on their farm and knows how much work and extra effort it takes.
"We call ourselves dairymen and we call ourselves local elected officials, but at the end of the day I think we're here to do more than milk cows and make laws," Mayer said. "We're here to take care of each other and grow each other. I don't know of a better role model."
"You're growing Wisconsin's best crop and you're making a difference," Mayer said to Tom and Joan.
In a time when some farmers are at odds with surrounding communities, Tom and Joan firmly believe in the small family farm.
"As much as some of the big farms - the community wants to get rid of them - our community wants us here," said Joan. "They see what happens on a farm and it gives them a chance to have their kid pet a calf."