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Tyler Kuhl has wanted one thing in life — to be a dairy farmer.

It was the dream of his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, who all farmed the same plot of land in the northwestern Wisconsin community of Amery. 

Kuhl's family farm is 100 years old this year, which is why he received the prestigious Century Farm and Home Program award at State Fair this week along with 147 other farm families celebrating a centennial.

But times are changing, and not for the better. 

DAIRYLAND IN DISTRESS: The peril facing one of Wisconsin's signature industries.

One hundred years since Kuhl's great-grandpa put down stakes, he's selling the last of his dairy cows.

"I'm shaking right now just talking about it," Kuhl said in an interview on the day of the Century Farm award ceremony.

"This 100 years means a lot but it's bittersweet because I'm done. This farm, my grandpa told me years ago, will always be a farm. But I just don't need to milk cows. It's a tough deal to look up at the sky and say that."

Farmers' milk checks have dropped because of a worldwide milk glut, forcing many to sell off their herds after losing money for months, sometimes years. Nearly 3,000 U.S. dairy farms folded last year, about a 6.5% decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. In Wisconsin this year, two to three dairy operations are shutting down every day.

At his peak, Kuhl milked 80 to 90 cows but that has dropped to just a handful. He's selling the last of his dairy cows in a few weeks.

"There's no money in it. I can't raise a family off of milking cows anymore. These markets are not cooperating," said Kuhl, 34. "Too many years in a downward spiral."

Plus dairy farming is a round-the-clock job. Since cows don't take a vacation, farmers rarely do either. If they want or need to travel, they hire people to look after their milking operations or rely on family and friends to do it for a few days. After 12 years of that, while also battling market headwinds that drain his bank account, Kuhl has finally had enough. 

Kuhl planned to come to the Wisconsin State Fair for the award ceremony but stayed home because his father had undergone surgery the day before. His award will come in the mail.

The Century Farm and Home Program started in 1948 when Wisconsin celebrated its centennial. In 1998, a sesquicentennial component was added to it, honoring farms that have been in the same family for 150 years. This year 28 farms were honored at State Fair for their sesquicentennials.

Honorees get tickets to the fair, an invitation to an awards breakfast, and commemorative photo, certificate and outdoor display sign.

Matt Brennaman received his family's century award this week.

"I think it shows our perseverance and our dedication to farming in Wisconsin," Brennaman said at the State Fair.

Brennaman is the third generation of his family to farm on land in Pardeeville. Back when his grandfather bought the land in 1919, they farmed dairy, hogs, sheep and crops. Now, it's been transformed into a custom feed operation, feeding 500 bulls owned by other farmers. 

Brennaman, who also has around 250 Angus cows on his 1,500-acre farm, is saddened to hear of the plight of a fellow century farmer.

"I think that hurts everybody. When the farming community isn't strong, it affects everybody," said Brennaman.

Inside one of State Fair's livestock barns, Nicole Barlass, a member of the Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Promotion Board, noted the incredibly difficult markets dairy farmers have faced for several years.

"It's been extremely challenging the last four to five years. Prices have been terrible. We're functioning in 2019 and getting paid 1970s milk prices," Barlass said. "Of course, costs are no longer in the ’70s."

Barlass took time out from greeting fairgoers at a display explaining the importance of dairy farming in Wisconsin to talk about the challenges. She noted that many Wisconsin dairy farmers are in their 60s and 70s and have decided to get out because it's no longer worth it. Many other dairy families are questioning their futures, wondering how long they can continue in the hope that things will eventually turn around.

"At the end of the day, the dairy industry, no matter what happens, will continue to be the backbone of Wisconsin," said Barlass, whose family milks 120 Holsteins in Sheboygan Falls.

Though Kuhl is selling his dairy herd, he's not leaving farming. He's raising show pigs and a herd of Simmental and shorthorn beef cattle and growing 350 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa. 

But his heart is in dairy farming, milking good cows, building pedigrees. His three daughters — 4, 6 and 8 — and 2-year-old son love to farm, Kuhl said.

"One of my tougher moments was telling my kids, we're not going to milk cows anymore," Kuhl said.

Meg Jones is at home virtually anywhere in Wisconsin, reporting on the character — and characters — of her home state for the Journal Sentinel and Sentinel since 1993. She was part of a team named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003 for coverage of chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer herd. A UW-Madison graduate and former member of the Badger band and women's crew team, the Rhinelander native has a passion for covering weather and military affairs. Since the war on terror started after 9-11, she has made eight trips overseas to cover Wisconsin troops in battle — four trips to Iraq and four to Afghanistan.

Email her at meg.jones@jrn.com; follow her on Twitter: @MegJonesJS.

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