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Diversity adds to farm sustainability

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This is the second in a three-part series "Farming into the Future" that explores the opportunities for farmers to be successful in this industry despite the economic challenges.

The camp members at Roden Barnyard Adventures, LLC farm camp kneaded, rolled and twisted ropes of dough into pretzels as they learned about cash crops grown on the farm like alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat for making dough. 

While waiting for the pretzels to bake, the campers took time out on this August day to check out a newborn calf, visit the calf barn and slide down a giant Slip and Slide to cool off.

Pulling apart the freshly baked pretzels, they experienced how the grain traveled from field to table. They finished the day by playing in a corn pit, one of the favorite spots at the farm camp. 

After graduating from UW-River Falls in December 2013, Jacki Moegenburg knew she wanted to work on the Roden family farm located near West Bend, Roden Echo Valley LLC, but she also wanted to bring something to the farm to find her niche. She decided on agritourism. 

"My parents have always been super open to having visitors on the farm. "They’ve always hosted tours and they’ve always said they wanted one of us to do that," Moegenburg said. 

The summer after she graduated she started with birthday parties, summer camps and tours. Moegenburg had 20 kids at camp that first summer. 

"I was thrilled. I thought it was awesome," said Moegenburg. 

This past summer, more than 250 kids visited the farm during various farm camps. Tour groups of anywhere from 20-100 people will visit the farm throughout the year. 

Bob Roden had always been involved with dairy promotion, opening their farm to people with the main purpose of educating them about the way of life on a farm, the way farmers do business. 

"When Jacki wanted to do this, I was all excited about it," said Roden. "There's a lot of people that don't have a clue as to what goes on in production agriculture."

Decades ago, nearly half the population might have made their living through production agriculture, but over the years that number has dwindled dramatically. 

"That isn’t that way today anymore," Roden said. "I think we need to educate people on production agriculture because what I see is a lot of these laws, rules and regulations coming down, being imposed on us as farmers, and those legislators voting on this … don’t have a clue as to what’s happening on the farm. There’s been a lot of cases where people have been out by us and telling me what I can and can’t do and don’t understand a thing about farming."

Years ago if people from farm families left the farm and went into ag related businesses, they understood farming and could relate to it.

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"We don't have that anymore," said Roden. "And I don't know where that supply of people is going to come from with the ag experience because the number of farms are getting fewer and fewer."

Ag suppliers have employees who don't have the experience of handling a tractor or combine. When Roden tries to explain a part to them, they have a hard time understanding what he's talking about.

A lot of the youth visiting Roden Barnyard Adventures aren't in 4-H, and probably aren't in Future Farmers of America (FFA), they might not even have FFA offered to them at their school.

More: A Dairy Future? Yes!

A lot of the farm camp participants are young and haven't even thought about careers, but by going to the farm camp, they've learned something about agriculture. 

"They've gained respect, for our farm, and hopefully respect for all farms, on where their food comes from," Moegenburg explained. "Maybe they'll be a politician and they'll be able to fight for us farmers because of the experience they had here."

Many who have visited the farm may not go into agriculture careers, but Moegenburg thinks some might as she's had some campers attend every year.

"Quite a few of them are super passionate. I could picture them going into that," added Moegenburg, "But it's not about the career that they end up in as much as us being able to have friends in other industries that are able to support us as well."

Moegenburg believes farmers should tell their farming story and she isn't afraid to share the story of their farm. 

"This is the reality. Our animals aren't spotless like you see them at the county fair," said Moegenburg. "There are going to be flies around or manure around, but we still need to make sure we are being as humane as possible with our animals and as clean as possible." 

Moegenburg feels its important for farmers to talk to people one-on-one and make connections. In the five years she's been doing farm camps and tours, she hasn't had one bad experience or comment. 

"I know it's probably coming," she admitted. "So many people — after they do the tour — they are grateful that I took the time to show them where food comes from. I think if more people are willing to do that we could get our voices heard that we are humans too and we have a heart for what we are doing."  

While most camp participants are within a 45 mile radius of the West Bend area or closer, this year people from California, Texas and Colorado attended the farm camps. 

With the camp geared more toward younger children, Moegenburg's goal for next year is to offer a different program for older participants where they can learn life skills. 

"I've talked about having the tire on the wagon flat and they have to figure out how we can get that fixed, or have them build something, have them work with the animals more," Moegenburg said. "This camp that I run now has been geared more toward the younger kids, but I could definitely be pushing more into that high school age — and those are the ones that are going to be looking for that career."

Moegenburg gets ideas for camp curriculum from farm bureaus and dairy promotion sites, trying to focus on dairy products — ice cream in a bag, butter in a jar — really focusing on the cows since Roden Echo Valley is a working dairy farm, not just a hobby farm where the kids get to hang out for a few days. 

While Moegenburg works with the animals on their dairy farm, her truest passion is the farm camp. 

"I grew up having the experience of the farm. I want to raise my kids on the farm and now I’m able to share that with these youth," Moegenburg pointed out. 

Through the farm camps, participants learn lessons of responsibility and work ethic.

"Every morning they feed the calves. They don’t see it as work," Moegenburg said. "I explain, this is my job that I do every day, but they think of it as fun. They love it."

Roden Echo Valley LLC is weathering the challenging agricultural climate as best they can, like all Wisconsin farms.

Bob Roden went through the farming turmoil of the 1980s where farmers were hurt with a combination of high interest rates and lost markets. With commodities being poor now, Roden said the downward trend farmers have been dealing with is just as bad as in the 80s.

"Everything seems to go in cycles, but I think the one thing that's putting a different spin on it this time is the issue we have with tariffs that Trump is trying to get straightened out," Roden explained. 

Typically those cycles seem to be three to five year cycles, Roden added, but the dairy industry is looking at the fourth year with no end in sight for things to turn around. 

While Roden hopes this current agricultural cycle comes to an end soon, he sees the diversity on their farm as helpful in riding through rough cycles. In the 1970s when Roden hauled milk, he saw that farmers who were diversified "could handle swings better than those that were just one commodity."

He watches the commodities markets closely, has some extra grain to sell and does some custom work, to stay diversified, along with the agribusiness.

"It isn't just that we have to depend on that milk check," Roden pointed out. 

Roden and his wife, Cindy, went into partnership with their son Rick and his wife in 2015. Along with Jacki, daughters Patti, Amy, and Becky are involved in agriculture, either on the home farm or their own farm, according to Roden Barnyard Adventure website

While Roden thinks it won't be long when their 700-cow dairy is going to be considered small with more large farms covering the countryside, he also thinks it's important for farming to continue with future generations. 

"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I didn't feel very strong that the next generation is going to take over," Roden said. "Nobody is holding a gun to my head to make me do this. I've always enjoyed it and I'm doing what I want to do. Anybody that gets up every day and hates their job, I feel sorry for them."

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