Greenville brothers ready to write final chapter on 167 year old family farm.
For over 167 years, Harold Ellenbecker's family has made a living from the land and a herd of dairy cows on a modest farm just west of the small community of Greenville.
Harold and his brothers, Larry, Ed and Roger and sister, Tammy, were the fifth generation to grow up on the farm with the boys planning to follow in their great great grandfather's footsteps.
Only Harold's older brothers, Roger and Ed, passed away early at ages 55 and 48, respectively, from heart ailments, leaving the younger brothers to carry on.
Legacy coming to an end
Without any children of their own to take over the family farm, Country View Dairy, the aging brothers see the legacy of the farm ending in their lifetime.
"We're both nearing retirement age and we can't rely on hired help. We recently interviewed one person and they lasted just one milking. That left a sour taste in our mouth," Harold said. "Low milk prices are another reason we arrived at the decision we did. We're lucky to be financially set, but every month we're operating at a loss."
With Larry looking at a hip replacement this fall, the brothers made the decision to sell off one of their milking herds. Their farm is set up on two farms along Manley Road, with Larry milking the herd of 102 Holsteins on the family's original homestead and Harold milking the herd of 92 Red and White Holsteins on the farm just down the road.
The auction this summer was an emotional event for Jenna Behrends who spent over a year working at Country View Dairy while attending school at Fox Valley Technical College. The Oconoto Falls resident returned to the farm again as a student at UW River Falls during an internship as a crop scout in northeast Wisconsin.
After returning to River Falls, Jenna kept in touch with Harold and Joy Ellenbecker—who she affectionately calls her "Appleton parents"—through occasional phone calls and greeting cards.
"Tammy messaged me about the auction. I was devastated. When you find out that people who are like family to you are selling their cows it's almost like a death in the family," said Jenna who works in the UW-Extension Office up in Rusk County as the Positive Youth Development Educator. "I just knew I had to come back home and be there for them while their livelihood was being auctioned off."
Prior to the auction, Harold says an auctioneer visited both farms to inspect the cows and felt that the Red and White Holsteins on the second farm would bring a better price. Harold says his oldest brother had raised Ayrshire cattle up until his death. After his passing, the brothers began introducing Red and White genetics into the herd.
Not much choice
On the day of the auction, the Ellenbeckers sold 92 head of their Red and White herd, the animals generating a fraction of what they were worth only a short time ago, Harold said.
"The prices were pretty low compared to two years ago—maybe half or one-third of the value. It was hard to stomach those prices," said Harold, who had hoped to manage and milk the herd for at least 3-4 years. "But with Larry's health and knowing we couldn't rely on hired help, we didn't have much choice."
Tammy said it was especially hard for her brothers to make the decision to downsize the milking herd this summer, just months after their mother passed away at the age of 91.
"They felt so defeated in not being able to find reliable help and then with the low milk prices," Tammy said. "Most of the cows they sold were bred so folks really got two for the price of one. It was a bittersweet experience."
Presently, the Ellenbecker's have 102 milking cows and 250 head of young stock left on the farm.
"We're going to try and liquidate the other herd eventually and try cash cropping for as long as we can on the 500 acres we own," Harold said. "We live near a heavy development territory and we may consider selling acreage. With prices the way they are, we most likely will be the last generation farming here."
No help, no money
Jenna says the loss of smaller family farms is becoming a common tale across Wisconsin.
"One of my co-workers counted six farms that went out of business near where he lives," she said. "This is not news, people. Dairy farms are selling out one by one. There's not enough help and there's not enough money. All the years of love, compassion, challenging times and dedication—all over in just five hours as the last cow was sold and on their way to new barns to continue to do their jobs."
Jenna says she's not likely to forget that day as the Ellenbecker's began the final chapter of the farm's history.
"Hearing the auctioneer calling off the numbers, listening to (Harold) commenting on the mannerisms of each cow he knew so well as she entered the ring, and then writing down the final price as she exited the ring," Jenna recalled. "I'm glad I had the experience to stand beside these people one last time in the barn with the cows, and to watch them say goodbye to the "girls" as each one entered the trailer.
And now another Wisconsin dairy barn sits empty.
"Farming has never been easy. It's not easy today. We can't take our farmers or producers for granted," Jenna said. "We need to continue to support our dairymen and women. Continue to be their advocates and a voice for agriculture."