Persevering through tough times

Amy Eckelberg
The Klussendorf family - Ryan and Cheri, Kale, Max, and Owen - walk down the lane between pastures. Normally, their dairy cows would be grazing behind them but for right now they are being temporarily housed in a neighbor's barn.

Merriam-Webster says that the definition of persevere is to continue doing something or trying to do something even though it is difficult.

During the last few years, farmers, in general, have had to persevere through many challenges.

We are still very much in the middle of the most recent challenge – the COVID-19 pandemic. Most farmers are finding it difficult to overcome the trials from the pandemic. On top of the chaos that comes with COVID-19 concerns, one Farm Bureau family has been faced with an additional challenge.

For 17 years, Ryan and Cheri Klussendorf have been farming in Taylor County. They milk and care for 120 dairy cows and choose to manage the herd through grazing practices. Cheri also has an off-farm job as an Integrated Solutions Coordinator with Riesterer & Schnell. The couple enjoys life on the farm with their three boys Kale, Owen and Max.

In what was a semi-normal day amidst a global pandemic, the family was eating lunch when one of them noticed smoke coming from the dairy barn. In what seemed like seconds, their lives were anything but normal. The smoke coming from the dairy barn turned their lives upside down.

While no animals were harmed from the fire on April 5, the damage to the dairy barn and other buildings left them with nothing to care for their dairy. A neighbor offered his vacant facilities, which was a blessing for the cows that still needed to be milked twice a day.

Ryan walks down his neighbor's barn alley. Each morning and evening the family drives to milk and care for their animals. While the facilities are not set up to what the Klussendorf's prefer, they are extremely thankful to have a place nearby for them to stay.

Despite years of low market prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no doubts that the Klussendorf family was going to rebuild.

“We had to show our kids that we can overcome adversity if we work hard and stick together,” said Ryan. “I was not going to let one bad day be the deciding factor to quit farming. We have had ups and downs before and we have gotten through them together – as a family.”

Ryan and Cheri enjoy farming with their three sons who each have their different niches on the farm. Kale and Owen like machinery work while Max enjoys spending time with the animals.

The couple has some fears about the scars this experience might leave on their boys, but are working through the initial trauma.

“On the day of the fire, our oldest son Kale hugged his mom and said, ‘Please don't let dad sell the cows,’” said Ryan. “I didn't even think he liked the cows, but this made me realize this is a family who keeps farming.”

The Klussendorfs' sons stood on top of a pile of dirt where their old dairy barn stood. A section of the barn was salvaged and can be seen in the background with some damage. Construction is underway for the new barn. The family is hopeful the process of rebuilding will go quickly.

They do their best to focus on the future, though Ryan admits it is not easy.

“You question if this will be the single most memorable thing from our kids’ childhood,” he said. We try to show them the great things that have come from it. Maybe they’ll remember the summer that we built the new barn instead of the one day we lost the barn to a fire.”

Despite the horrific event, the community stepped up to help. Neighbors near and far have helped in a variety of ways. Even more impressive was Farm Bureau friends from around the state either came to help clean up, offered their equipment or send words of encouragement.

“As a farmer, you take a lot of pride in doing things on your own,” Ryan shared. “One of the hardest things to do is swallow your pride and accept help. Our community has backed us in amazing ways. They helped us find a builder, pushed off their own building projects to get our cows home, brought personal equipment for cleanup and fieldwork, while showing up and putting in a lot of labor without asking for anything in return.”

Farmers have a reputation for being optimistic. Ryan proved that when he said, “This fire is not about what it is, it’s about what it can become in the end.”

Farm Bureau Family

Farm Bureau runs deep in the Klussendorf family. Not only does Ryan’s involvement span across multiple programs and committees, but his dad, Rob, has been a member for more than 50 years. Rob served on Wisconsin’s Young Farmer Committee from 1977 to 1980 and was elected chair of the committee in his last year.

Ryan’s grandfather served on the Waukesha County Farm Bureau board and in 1976, was elected president.

Even more noteworthy, is that Ryan’s great-grandfather was a charter member of the Waukesha County Farm Bureau.

In 2019, Ryan was elected to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors. He represents District 8, which includes Clark, Lincoln, Marathon, Portage, Price, Taylor and Wood counties.

A new bulk tank sits outside the construction area at the Klussendorf farm waiting to be installed. The tank came from a Farm Bureau friend in Rock County who recently stopped milking cows.

“I think it’s really cool that my great-grandpa signed the charter for Waukesha County to start Farm Bureau in the state,” said Ryan. “And now 100 years later, I am on the state board keeping that part of our family heritage alive. I hope my boys will see the value and join the ranks as Farm Bureau members someday.”

Both Cheri and Ryan have dabbled in nearly every aspect of Farm Bureau but Ryan especially enjoys policy work. He says that Farm Bureau has taught him how to speak up.

“Each individual (in Farm Bureau) can make a difference,” Ryan explained. “I brought forth policy in my county that made it’s way to the American Farm Bureau Federation delegate floor and got voted into policy. It starts with one person and one idea.”

During a Young Farmer and Agriculturist trip to Washington, D.C., Ryan had a life-changing moment.

During the trip, young Farm Bureau members spend one day on Capitol Hill to meet with legislators and advocate for agriculture.

“It was then that I realized no one will tell my story better than me, and (our lawmakers) want to hear our stories. It helped to form my voice and get me out of my shell,” said Ryan.

In 2011, Ryan and Cheri received the Farm Bureau’s YFA Achievement Award. The award recognizes Farm Bureau members between the ages of 18 and 35, who excel in a production farming operation, understand current issues affecting agriculture and show leadership and involvement in Farm Bureau and the local community.

Ryan is a graduate of WFBF’s Leadership Institute, a premier leadership training course with the mission to develop strong and effective county Farm Bureau leaders.

Elected last December to WFBF’s board, Ryan is excited to blaze the trail as the organization heads into its 101st year and to build on what his great-grandfather helped start.

Just as farmers and Farm Bureau have had to push through challenging times, the Klussendorf family has united around the need to persevere toward better days.

This article originally appeared in the WFBF Rural Route publication.