Farming: always challenging but not always doom and gloom

John Oncken
US farmers would like to see the trade route to China reopened. Here shipping containers await loading at the Los Angeles harbor.

Take a look at one (of many) of the web sites centering on agriculture and you will see story after story devoted to doom and gloom. Farms struggling to stay in business with milk income lower than expenses, corn and grain farmers looking for markets, labor concerns across all of  agriculture, tariffs and border battles and even the rainy weather are featured on web sites and in traditional media. 

And, don’t forget the fake milk, dairy products and meat all seeking a piece of the consumer dollar and of the dairy and beef producers market.

Whoa is me, is there any future at all in farming and agriculture?

I think “yes.” 

A future?

Farming has never been easy, ask your farmer parents or grandparents. I’ll bet you’d hear about challenges of raising a family, paying the mortgage, replacing a tractor,  repairing a building or getting sick at a crucial time. 

True, these are not worldwide issues but even more important, they are do or die family issues that had to be solved (and were) without congressional hearings, presidential orders or a nationwide vote. 

The dust bowl

Many years ago while advertising manager at ABS (then American Breeders Service) I attended an Angus sale at Jorgensen Brothers Angus at Ideal, South Dakota. Owner Martin Jorgensen convinced me to stay overnight in a spare bedroom at their ranch house. 

On the wall of the bedroom was a photo of the house taken during a dust storm in the 1930s. The back of the house (where the bedroom was located) was buried in black dust (actually soil from fields) from ground to rooftop. That was pretty serious stuff I thought to myself before I went to bed that night. And it was.

The low tech plumbing at the Oncken farm remained until the author was in college.

But today, Jorgensen Land and Cattle that has been family owned/operated since 1909 farms 12,000 acres in no-till crop production and markets 3,500 Angus bulls annually.  Jorgensen Angus were among the first to be performance tested and are known far and wide today for their genetic values.

The Great Depression

When I was a growing up farm boy, Dane county and all of Wisconsin was full of rental dairy farms owned by banks, insurance companies and other big farmers. It took me many years to understand that these farms were farms that had been foreclosed during the great depression of the 1930s. The now owners who had no farming expertise, of course tried to sell them — with little success — so offered the farms as rentals, mostly on a percentage basis. 

As the farm economy improved, after World War II, the rentals were sold and a new crop of farm owners emerged and America’s Dairyland grew and grew as farms got bigger and better.


I’ve watched and written about agriculture over many years and marveled at how technology has taken over, always leading to more production, produced more efficiently with less labor.

Since post World War II, technology moved rapidly from the horses era.

Unfortunately, the processors and marketers of farm products couldn’t keep up with the producers and supply often exceeds demand. Even so, innovators and entrepreneurs saw a place for plant and laboratory produced copies of dairy and meat and apparently consumers like what they see. (Note: fake milk is appearing more often in TV commercials, I notice.)     

But, my optimism about the future of farming continues, especially when I visit farmers who also remain optimistic and eagerly continue on with confidence.

Time to visit

A few days ago I thought it time to revisit a young couple who I met and wrote about just a bit over a year ago. Chris and Angel Hebbe were building a dairy herd and invited me to come and see. Which I did.          

In 2013, Chris and Angel moved to their current farm that was owned by Roger Lehmann, Chris’ grandfather. 

Angel, Chris and Anneliese Hebbe, Cambridge farmers, look to the future with optimism.

We started by raising custom heifers, Chris explained. “The dairy barn had been stripped of equipment after milking had stopped in 1993 and we put in stanchions, pipeline and all the milking equipment. The equipment came from another old barn and I did most of the work myself. We bought 13 cows and started milking,” he continues.  “Then went to 30, 45 and now 55 cows and soon we plan to be milking 90 cows.”   

The cows are housed in a freestall barn just outside the barn, Chris explained. “We only milk in the barn that has 40 stanchions, so we are switching cows each milking. Our plan is to milk 90 cows thus making two barns full at each milking."           

A few days ago I got to wondering how the Hebbes were doing in their dairy enterprise and I needed a happy story to write about - and I found it.      

Got bigger          

“We’ve bought another farm since you were here,” Angel began. “It has a Double 8 parlor on 68 acres but has been empty since 2013. We are in the process of putting the facility back into milking condition. And we bought a 125 acre farm nearby that we had been renting. We are now up to 90 milk cows,” she continued. 

“But, we know we have a stray voltage problem,” Chris adds. “Our cows freshen and then ‘tank’ and we’ve tried to find the cause. That’s one of the reasons we bought the parlor and barns — we’ll move the cows there soon.”            

The 120 foot bar currently serves as the milking parlor for the 90 cow Hebbe dairy herd.

The Hebbes are still using high school students as milkers. 

“Four young women and one young man do much of our milking,” Angel says, “and we have one full-time employee (Randy North) to help on the farm.”      

The Hebbes now farm about a thousand acres and plan to expand the herd as time progresses. “We’ve talked about robots eventually,” Angels says, “but not yet.” 

Like on most farms, the tractors and corn planter were standing idle last week during my visit. I also noticed four lakes on Cedar Road just down the hill from the farmstead that I didn’t see a year ago. 

“No, they are new,” Chris said, “and we didn’t need them.”          

Lots of new ponds have been created this spring on farmland.

“What about the doom, gloom and low prices in the dairy market,” I asked. 

“There is not much we can do about it and complaining doesn’t do any good,” Chris says. “Hopefully the cycle will change as it has in the past. Our milk checks have been going up a little. 

Good luck to the Hebbes and thanks for another enjoyable and optimistic visit.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.