Family focuses on organics
Much has changed since 1985 when Bob and Betsy Ebert bought their rural Reedsville farm. They have increased their Holstein herd from 23 to 170, built new barns, including a milking parlor, completely remodeled their home and went from partnership in the farm with Bob's brothers John and Tom, to a current partnership with their oldest son, Austin.
'We've done a lot,' Bob Ebert said.
One thing that hasn't changed is their philosophy of non-chemical, organic farming.
'My parents stopped using chemicals back in the '70s, so I grew up not knowing anything about chemicals,' Bob Ebert said.
The Eberts sell their milk to Organic Valley, an organic milk company based in LaFarge, Wisconsin.
'If I remember correctly, seven farmers started the business and it grew and in 1994 we got on their truck,' Bob Ebert recalls. He said that at the time they were the 21st and 22nd farms to join Organic Valley. 'I believe there's over 1,800 farmers now.'
Certification is needed to be considered an organic farm, which involves filling out 'a lot of paperwork,' according to Bob Ebert, and have yearly inspections.
Documentation regarding seed, fertilizer and anything else put into the ground must be maintained and shown.
'Basically, it takes three years to change from conventional ground to an organic farm without using chemicals,' Bob Ebert said.
Conventional fertilizer cannot be used, although some organic fertilizers are on the market.
When asked how things are made to successfully grow without the use of conventional fertilizer, Bob Ebert said: 'Basically, weather and God. He controls everything. Weather dictates everything in organicgrowth.'
For instance, the last couple of years it was very wet and the Eberts couldn't get into the fields to cultivate the soil.
'If you can't get into the fields, you can't cultivate. If you can't cultivate, you've got weed problems. The crops will grow, but you've got to control the weeds … that's your biggest problem being organic,' Bob Ebert said.
They are also experimenting with some of the organic fertilizer now available.
'The only one that works for sure is called cow manure, and most farmers have a lot of that,' Bob Ebert joked. 'As far as the other ones go, I'm still skeptical if it really helps.'
The Eberts plant on approximate-y 560 acres, growing corn, alfalfa, oats, peas and soybeans, all for feed.
'We need everything we grow,' Bob Ebert noted.
As much as organic farming presents some challenges, the Eberts wouldn't have it any other way. 'When you see somebody spraying their fields or their lawn, it really bugs me. There are places where they spray the ditches to keep the grass down and it's all brown. To me, does that make sense? Because you're spraying that and when it rains the water all runs in there — it runs to your creeks, lakes and other bodies of water. Where does that chemical go?' Bob Ebert asked.
He said the organic market has seen huge growth in the last few years.
'People are so sick, it really comes down to what you eat and people are getting more conscious of what they eat,' he said. 'That's why the organic industry continues to grow.'
Bob Ebert said approximately eight other organic farmers operate in roughly a 20-mile radius from his home. When asked if organic farming was harder than conventional farming, he replied: 'Nothing is easy. It's challenging.'
Bob said they have had great successes and great failures, with weather being the controlling factor.
But it's all worth it. He said his cows are 'absolutely' healthier for living the organic life. The Eberts also try to eat organically.
The Eberts have several part-time employees who help in their threetime- a-day milking.
'We're probably one of a few organic farmers to milk three times,' Bob Ebert said. 'We just found out by having a milking parlor we can milk an extra time a day, and we get more milk out of the cows. We think it's better for the cows.'
When they built the milking parlor, Austin Ebert was attending school at Fox Valley Technical College and had brought some new ideas to the farm.
'He came up with some new things that they learned in school,' Betsy Ebert said.
Bob Ebert added: 'He had input in the way we remodeled the parlor and free stall, that was either on his own or he learned it through school. He learned technology, like the computers that are now in the tractors.'
Austin explained that the GPS in the tractor allows them to track where seeds have been planted and where they've already cultivated the soil.
'He can save each field where he's planted on a program, and because we're organic, we go through the fields and cultivate several times,' Bob Ebert said. 'So he can punch in that same field and the computer will remember that. He can track the same places where he's planted the corn the multiple times you go through again cultivating.'
While the organic life is challenging, it's also fulfilling.
'You don't have success stories every year, but I think most farmers pretty much do what their dads did,' he said. 'We turned organic because that's the way we grew up.'