Still a family holiday season on the farm

John Oncken
It's family time.

I’d guess that most farming people  — and probably most everyone else — sees the month from Thanksgiving through Christmas as the “family season.” Schools are on vacation at both ends of the season and most of the students will be back home doing some farm work or maybe little or nothing. Normally the crops are pretty much all in the barns and bins by late November — but not exactly true this year. Just take a ride through the countryside and note all the still-standing acres of beans and corn. 

Normally the one crop still requiring a good bit of physical labor is the tobacco hanging in the shed on a hundred or so farms in Dane and Rock county. The farmers are waiting for a couple of days of warm temperatures and high humidity that will soften the leaves and allow the hanging lathes of tobacco plants to be taken down, piled, leaves stripped from the stem, bundled and delivered to the warehouse. (Perhaps the warmish weather of recent days has already started the process.)  

Thanksgiving dinner kicks it off — well maybe it’s deer hunting — school vacations soon follow with Christmas and New Years close behind.  To be honest, my thoughts on the holiday season are are still framed by my days as a farm boy on that small dairy farm in Dane County. 

Years gone by

The Thanksgivings of my youth meant a family dinner at home — a big event even though there were only five people involved; my parents and us three children (me, Donald and Audrey). Mother worked for days getting the pies made, cranberries cooked and potatoes peeled. Turkey was the traditional and much anticipated main course and was probably an even bigger treat then because it was a sort of specialty product not available 365 days a year at a cheap price like today.  

The holiday season usually means big Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

On rare occasions, goose was the main course if a combination of weather and goose decision-making had brought a flock of migrating “Canadians” to the sometimes ponds on the neighboring farm or in our cornfield and dad had met them with his seldom used 12 gauge.

At noon

Our Thanksgiving dinner was at noon on the farm — supper was at night and lunch was what we carried to school in a lunch box or paper bag. Actually on that special day we ate a bit later, maybe one o’clock and what took mother and sister Audrey most of the week to prepare was consumed — and so enjoyed — in just a few moments. We then all sat down in the living room for a bit, reading, napping or sometimes playing checkers, cards or tiddly winks. Then of course it was chores and milking time while the women did the dishes.

Remembering two

I do remember two other past Thanksgivings — both unusual at the time. One was at Oakland Army Base where I, as a newly commissioned Army Second Lieutenant, was stationed. I was invited to a friends home for Thanksgiving dinner and was to arrive at about 1 p.m. — which I did. He served drinks or some sort, maybe beer, wine or mixed, which I guess I enjoyed. I don’t think I’d eaten much breakfast, knowing I’d be eating a big meal at dinnertime. 

At one time every town had a milk plant and bottled milk, only the bottles remind us of those days.

But, then as I got hungrier and hungrier and a bit sick to the stomach from the drink I’d consumed, I realized that dinnertime to this friend was supper time to me. I guess I made it through and probably enjoyed the meal but the sick-to-the-stomach feeling I had that day is still clear in my mind.  

Then there was the Thanksgiving at Uijongbu, Korea where my small railroad unit cook received 13 turkeys for our 30 GI’s. I remember the mess sergeant traded 11 of them to a neighboring army unit for some paint and other supplies we needed. We ended up with plenty of turkey eaten in the mess tent while thanking the cook for his efforts. (The “Army way” worked again.)

This week

This year my oldest daughter Lynne is flying back from Fresno, California for a week or so at home. (Actually, she has lived longer in California than in Wisconsin.)  We have been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at my niece’s home in Evansville and will get to see many of my brother Don’s family members. We’ll miss Don who died some three years ago and my wife Jan who died nearly five years ago.

My other daughter Laurel will also miss the Thanksgiving dinner but will travel from her California home before Christmas and we’ll be together and son John will host his three children and grandchild at his home in North Dakota.  

What about other farm families, is the traditional Thanksgiving dinner still ”in"? Yes, so they tell me.  If the children don’t live too far away and the weather cooperates the family comes home. Thanksgiving was, is and remains family time even though this year instead of taking a nap after dinner, many family members will be harvesting corn and soybeans.   

A rough year

It’s not been a great year for Wisconsin farmers especially dairy farmers with many smaller family farms dispersing the cows and entering a new farming enterprise — maybe beef or cropping more acres — or an off farm job. Yes, milk prices might have now risen to what history could perceive as “normal.”  It may be too late for some dairy operations and other bad things may be coming down the road.

Although it's late Nov ember many acres or corn and beans are still in the fields.

The announced bankruptcy of Dean Foods (America's biggest milk processor and marketer) may be currently a backyard dirt shuffle that could develop into a full fledged tornado sweeping across dairy land. Media has often pointed out that Dean Foods owes Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), their biggest customer, over $172 million. That’s a lot of money ... and a lot of milk processing equipment scattered around the U.S. That’s why rumors of DFA taking over Dean Foods are floating about. 

Not clear

What does it all mean to dairy farmers? That’s rather unclear early on but I’d guess it’s not a great sign for the long term. Whoever ends up owning the far-flung Dean Foods empire (including Dean themselves) will want to cut the losses Dean has undergone from less demand for milk from a declining number of milk drinkers. In other words, find a new home for the extra milk or buy less milk from farmers.

The future of Dean Foods is unknown right now.

If Dean keeps operating as is with new money, the time will come when they will adjust the bottom lime meaning less milk bought. Any other buyer, and it would have to be a big company, will also look at income and expenses and the not to be ignored raw material that comes from dairy farmers.    

“As Dean Foods is DFA’s largest customer, our focus is ensuring we have secure markets for our members’ milk,” was DFA’s recent statement. “Thanks to the strategic planning and management by our farmer Board of Directors and management team, the Cooperative is in a financial position to withstand a situation like this. We remain committed to delivering value to our members and dedicated to preserving the family farm for generations to come.”

It is too early for the dairy industry to get a real handle on what will happen in the Dean Foods situation — time will tell. But you can be assured there will be plenty of milk available to drink.

There are still a few small  milk processors like Sassy Cow at Columbus.

It’s interesting to look back at the milk industry and realize that years ago, prior to WWII and even after, there were many milk bottling plants and milk was in bottles delivered to the insulated box on your front step. Then the small town bottlers were gone and milk could/can be bought most anywhere that sells groceries. Dean Foods bought regional dairy processors coast to coast without changing their names and got to be the biggest and most secure of dairy processors in many farmers' minds. It’s also where many of the the nations biggest dairy co-op (DFA) members send their milk. Now Dean Foods, after becoming the biggest, is bankrupt. What now? 

We remember Thanksgiving

Most of us older folks fondly remember the big family get-togethers of years gone by and value those still held. It was all about talking, eating, remembering and resting. Thanksgiving is really not about Black Friday and buying things or NFL football games.  It’s really about being thankful for all the things we have in our country and for family gatherings and memories. I hope you had a great family get together that will continue through this holiday season.

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