A 100-year trend of fewer dairies

John Oncken
The former dairy barn ar the Nelson farm stands vacant and alone.

The number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has declined from 170,000 in 1930 to the current 7,292. That’s a drop of near 163,000 individually owned farmsteads producing milk. In spite of the dramatic change in farm numbers, there has never been a milk shortage, rather a surplus is often the issue.

So big deal, who cares? A lot of folks, among them today’s small farmers who fear for their future


Why are there so few small family farms these days? The answers may be many, depending on the reason behind each person’s decision to leave the dairy farm: Changing lifestyles, job opportunities, economics and technology among them. However, one that seems to appeal to many is the phantom takeover by big farmers — so-called corporate farmers — who are perceived as having little regard for lifestyle or the environment and farm solely for money rather than the lifestyle.

The Mabie farm, the last dairy on the road milked until 1992 once stood on the far side of the pond, now part of a shopping center.

What to do?

When I was in high school, my dad often talked of one day expanding our 15-cow dairy by purchasing neighboring small farms — something easily imagined as our farm was located on then Highway 106 (now 138), an eight-mile stretch running between Oregon and Stoughton once lined with over 20 small dairy farms.

We talked about farm expansion enough that I saw where my future could lie and it seemed like a good idea. A couple of months after graduating from Oregon High School with my 27 classmates, I asked my dad when we were going to look seriously at expanding our farm.

No more debt

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot and have decided I didn’t want to go into debt again,” he said, “My brother and I worked for years to pay off the home farm at Waunakee after our dad’s early death, then we were hit by the Great Depression when hogs sold for $3 a hundred, then bought this farm and just paid it off,“ he explained. “I just don’t want to go into debt again.”

The Meyer barn has been empty since 1991 but could house cows today.

So, I was left without a sure future but I don’t remember being seriously concerned. A couple of days later I did remember a scholarship I’d received at my high school graduation that paid for two years tuition at the UW-Madison. My problem: I knew nothing about the UW although we lived only about 15 miles away. But I muddled my way through registration and ended up four years later with an agronomy degree. During those years I went back to the farm every weekend (hitch-hiking in good weather) to help my father with the chores, milking and fieldwork.

Didn’t go back

And, I was hired as the Clark County Agent and moved within the ag world and never returned to the farm. My parents retired at about 70 years of age, sold everything at an auction, moved to a duplex and happily wintered in Arizona.

That scene was sort of typical for that era. The Great Depression caused many farmers to fear and avoid debt and the economy, both of which faded into time, and dairy expansion began its run that continues today.

Highway 138 is flat, rich land that was once home to over 20 dairy herds.

Today there are no dairy farms and no dairy cows — zero, naught, none, not a one on Highway 138 between Stoughton and Oregon. It should also be noted that because of strict zoning laws there are no subdivisions nor mansions owned by Madisonians living in the country while working in town.

All gone

The Ed Shinnick farm located at the junction of Wisconsin 106 and US 14 was sold to the new Oregon High agricultural instructor in 1949. Although the farm was kept intact, the dairy cows went.

The Joe Mooney farm just east, stayed in dairying until the early 1960s remembers Rick Mooney, a Spooner, Wis., ag writer and photographer. “None of the family wanted to continue milking,” he says.

Next was the Carl Gunnelson farm, a 120-acre operation that was sold in the late 1960s to the growing Stokstad Brothers operation a mile away who were building an expanded dairy. The John Swenson family across the road had an 80-acre farm and milked a small dairy herd. The house burned in the early 1970s with the death of Mrs. Swenson and dairying ceased and the farm has long been a horse farm.

The former Manson dairy is now an antique shop.

George Paar milked a maximum of 20 cows on a 105-acre farm. Daughter Barbara Paar Kruchten said her dad quit milking when she got married in 1964.

“I was the only one out of three daughters and one son who still lived at home,” she says. “When I left, the cows were sold.”

Across the highway, John Diedrich milked a few cows along with running the community threshing machine and corn shredder. The Stokstad family bought this small farm in the late 1950s and the cows left.

The former Eugster dairy is now a Farmers Market, sweet corn farm and petting zoo.

Oscar Dahl milked very few cows on his 50-acre farm until the early 1950s. Next was the Gene Garvoille farm that he rented from the Lovejoy family until 1956 when Robert H. Meyer Jr. bought it and expanded by adding the Hoffman farm nearby and some other land. He went on to milk 140 cows until 1991 when he became discouraged with the milk prices and sold the cows.

The set of white buildings now known as the Eugster Farm Market was for many years operated as a rental farm until John and Pat Eugster bought it in 1953 and milked cows until 1965. The sons now raise and market sweet corn and run a petting zoo for kids.

The last operating dairy farm on old Highway 106 was that of Les and Jennette Mabie who milked until 1992 when they “got old.”

All that remains of the Mooney dairy on the west end of Highway 138 is the silo in the back yard of rural home.

I’d guess few of the 160,000 dairies lost over the past decades were in bankruptcy, rather it was after much thought and long considered choice that many left. Times and lives change for many reasons and there is little reason to believe this will not continue. But, who knows?

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached  at 608-572-0747, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.