Farm families cope through hard times of pandemic

Gloria Hafemeister
John Rettler, left, and his sons Justin and Paytin, are diverting some milk on their Neosho farm to be made into cheese that they market at their farm, farmers markets and area gift shops. Another son, Quintin, also farms with Rettler and his wife Joann on their 250 cow dairy where cows are milked by robots.

The old saying, “Don’t cry over spilled milk!” has taken on new meaning this spring as many of the area’s dairy farmers found themselves dumping the milk that their cows gave and going without pay, despite the fact that they still incurred the expenses of producing it. Others who did not need to dump milk were asked to cut their production.

Adding insult to injury for some of these farmers was the criticism they encountered on social media for “wasting” a perfectly healthy food product by just dumping it when there are so many hungry people around.

Of course, no one wants to waste food but the logistics are just not there. You cannot take a semi-load of unpasteurized milk and park it in front of a food pantry and let people take as much as they want. It needs to go to a bottling plant and then get distributed.

Like often happens in times of crisis, many organizations and individuals did step up to the plate to buy and distribute milk and cheese to those in need. This has eased the drop in the sales of dairy products due to the closing of restaurants and schools.

Brownsville dairy farmer Jeni Oechsner says, “We are taking one day at a time and keeping ‘our faith over fear’ as our daily reminder.”

She goes on to says, “With being a sixth generation farm family we know that every one of those generations struggled through some very rough roads. We all cried our hearts out when we had to see our blood sweat and tears go down the drain and really brought tears to the eyes of not only our family but our farm employees who we always think of as part of our family. Seeing the hurt in their eyes and not being able to hug and let them know that it wasn’t their fault was so hard.”

The family dumped 20% of their April production and 12% in May.

Jeni says everyone on their farm has worked together to follow strict guidelines for protecting family and employees.

While their family often welcomed visitors to help promote dairy and let the consuming public understand how milk is produced during this time, they have closed their barns to visitors in order to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Horicon dairy producer Lisa Condon says, “Dumping our milk down the drain after 36 years of working day and night to produce a perfect, wholesome product for my family and yours just hurts.  Whoever says, ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk,’ never watched their life’s work go down the drain.”

How is this family coping?  Lisa says, “We get up every morning and take care of our animals, plant our crops and hope once again to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Brenda Conley, Dodge County’s dairy ambassador with the Dodge County Dairy Promotion Committee says things on the dairy farm she and her husband Chris operate at Neosho have not changed dramatically because of the crisis.

“In the beginning we were a little worried about the rumors about whether our processing plant would be able to keep up but so far our milk is going out and the plant has been able to keep going as usual,” Conley said.

They were asked to cut milk production which also cut their income. They began using their own milk to feed calves instead of buying milk replacer. Brenda also tried her hand at making cheese from their milk right in their farm kitchen.

Brenda and her husband, Chis have two daughters – Mckayla in sixth grade and Paige in fourth. During the last two months of the school year they received their lessons online. They also needed to take part in their 4-H meetings online.

Brenda says, “At first it was a challenge but once we got into the routine we were fine.”

Brenda’s work as dairy ambassador changed dramatically though because of the virus.  All of her school and library programs were cancelled. A big training event that she led for 4-Hers at Family Learning Day was cancelled as well as all of her summer dairy promotion events. The Dodge County dairy breakfast scheduled to be held at the Nell Farm near Juneau was also cancelled.

Brenda’s dairy ambassador position is a paid job with funding for her salary coming from profits at the annual dairy breakfast. She says not only is she out the pay for her work but she feels bad that the opportunities to promote dairy products have been lost at a time when this promotion is so important.

With the arrival of June Dairy month she found other ways to promote including live interviews on local radio stations and on-line promotions. One of the popular promotions was letting people know where Dodge County farmers ship their milk so people have the opportunity to buy cheese and dairy products made from their neighbor’s milk.

Some dairy farms have had success producing and marketing cheese from a portion of their milk.           

Alvin Hildebrandt says his family’s venture making cheese started several years ago and they have had success marketing it at area farmers’ markets. While that is somewhat time-consuming he says he enjoys it since he is semi-retired from the family farm that is now being run by his brother, son and nephews. 

Hildebrandt says consumers these days want to know where their food comes from.  When they buy particular varieties of Prairie Pure Cheese they know exactly where it comes from. The freshness of the milk contributes to the good taste of the cheeses.

The cheese is sought after at farmers markets but things at the farmers markets have changed quite a bit this yea as well with vendors and buyers now required to wear a mask.

“We also can’t give out samples and that’s something that always got people to buy our cheese. We’ve been doing this a couple of years though and many know our cheese,” he said.

The Rettler family at Tin Valley Farm at Neosho are also glad that they are using a portion of their milk to make cheese that is marketed at area gift shops. The family sells four different varieties that are made at Specialty Cheese in Reeseville. At a time when farmers aren’t getting much for their milk they say this has helped.

The family's cheese is available for sale right on their farm and also in select grocery stores and shops and at the Oconomoc Farmers Market.

In 2018, Tin Valley Farms launched a new, high tech robotic milking facility that includes 6 robots.  The cheese venture is a part of their diversification plan to provide opportunities for the entire family.       

Shelly Grosenick farms with her husband Jim at Lebanon. Even before the COVID 19 issues began the family had sought ways to supplement their dairy income. She found success by raising plants and vegetables and making unique items in her farm kitchen to sell.

One of those popular items has been a milk-based soap made with milk from their cows. She sells a lot of her things online but her products are also sold in several shops and are available at numerous farmers markets.

“I started making soap with our raw milk last fall.  It fits really well with my business and is going very well.  Ideally I’d be doing more wholesale but the craziness of this year has put those plans on hold for just a bit,” Grosenick said.

She is an incredibly busy person as she tries to keep up with everything but gets a lot of help from her two young children Maddy and Tucker. Grosenick also spends a lot of time with them as they have studied at home the past couple of months of the school year. The children also help out with simple time-consuming tasks in the gardens.

The whole crisis has been hard on farm families financially but farmers are eternal optimists and most families are finding ways to work together and avoid crying over spilled milk.