Visiting a real farm

John Oncken
Now Media Group

'We wanted our kids to see a farm,' was the most common answer given to my query: 'What brought you to this breakfast?'

I asked that question of 50 (or so) people at the 38th annual Dane County Breakfast on the Farm last Saturday and wasn't surprised at the answers.

People came for a myriad of reasons: haven't been on a farm for many years; enjoy seeing all the people: was curious; we try to go every year; sounded interesting; and one man who said, 'I didn't have anything else to do.'

Whatever the reason, 5,000 people found their way to the Hi-Way Holstein Ranch just west of Mount Horeb and east of Blue Mounds to enjoy the warm sun, a big breakfast and actually tour a dairy farm. Owner Jason Ihm had the farmstead ready for visitors; the Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee had all the signs, exhibits and people in place; and the hay field was dry enough to park the cars.

Simply amazing

Although I've attended dozens of such dairy breakfasts, I'm always amazed at how thousands of people can descend on a farm; have a leisurely sit-down meal of scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage, cheese, milk and coffee; and be surrounded by helpers refilling your coffee cup, handing out more pancakes and keeping the tables clean and trash put away.

But, it's done at over 60 such dairy breakfasts held across the state each year. Of course, the key to the success of these big events are the committees and the many volunteers from throughout the ag community who donate goods, services, time and funds to pull it off.

Yes, the food line was long — it always is at farm dairy breakfasts — but that's half the fun as new friends are made while standing in line. It also means the youngsters stand calmly in line, no running around or they may lose their place. Besides, it's probably the first time they have stood in line to eat, and many probably had never eaten with such a big crowd before.

The long tables in the big, new machine shed tent offered another opportunity for folks to get acquainted with strangers sitting next to and across the table.

However, I note, after years of eating eggs and sausages at farm dairy breakfasts and observing the eaters, most people don't really make a big effort to talk to strangers at the table. I guess it's a combination of shyness and concentrating on eating.

175 cows

Hi-Way Holstein Ranch is a sort of in-between type dairy farm: 175 milk cows housed in a freestall barn but milked twice a day in the stanchion barn and 350 acres of cropland.

Owner Jason Ihm was a farm boy from just down the road at Barneveld who began farming on his own in 1990, right after high school. He currently has five part-time employees.

Why would he be willing to host the dairy breakfast and have 5,000 people tromping over his farmstead and in his buildings?

It's about pride

'I'm proud to be a dairy farmer and feel it was our obligation to tell and show consumers where their food comes from,' Ihm explained. ' Many people have never visited a farm and don't know any farmers. This is an opportunity for us (the dairy community) to educate and inform and for them to see and learn.

A visitor from Madison asked me if and how much the host farmer was paid to host the dairy breakfast.

Jason laughed when I relayed the question to him. 'No, I'm not paid, nor are any of the farm families that host dairy breakfasts,' he said. 'We host because we want to. It is our opportunity to promote our industry and our dairy products. '

Well planned

Ihm explained that the Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee planned the event, from food, exhibits, tours, funding and the too-many-to-count details to count, with hundreds of volunteers who ensured the breakfast went smoothly.

'Yes, I did have some help from Premier Co-op at Mt. Horeb and a local grain company,' Jason said. 'They brought out people to help me get ready. They were great.

On checking with Premier Co-op, I found out that their agronomy team of four to five people spent a couple of days at the farm working. In addition, the cooperative provided and spread the bark/mulch used for decoration around the farmstead.

No, no, no, host farmers are not paid to host 5,000 people who drop in for breakfast.

As at all dairy breakfasts, the food line is long, but the ice cream sundae line is almost as long. After all, how many kids (or adults) eat ice cream for breakfast?

Didn't mother always tell us that we could have dessert at dinner and supper, not breakfast? Of course she was wrong, and dairy breakfast goers make up for years of depravation and love their ice cream.

This year, it was Culvers Frozen Custard on the menu as five Culvers franchises got together and provided the free custard. Jim Nonn, Cross Plains, who owns Culvers in Cross Plains, Dodgeville and Mount Horeb explained, 'We thought it would be a good idea. After all, dairy farmers are good customers of ours, as are those who come to the event. So my three stores plus the Middleton and west Madison Culvers supplied the custard and servers.'

After the long line was gone and the last dip of custard served, Nonn summarized, 'We used 65 buckets (5 gallons each) of frozen custard, with about 100 scoops per bucket, for a total of 6,500 servings. We had 21 people scooping, and they all had fun.'

By noon, most visitors were gone, hopefully with full stomachs and a greater knowledge of what dairy farming is all about.

Note: Jim Nonn was dairy-farm raised and served 17 years as controller of Germania Dairy Automation, so he knows about dairying.

A week later, the battalions of volunteers (farmers, agribusiness people and many others) who helped are (hopefully) recovered from the long hours spent doing things they normally wouldn't think of doing — things like cooking eggs, selling tickets, manning exhibits and lots of walking and some physical labor.

Multiply their efforts by those who put on the 60 other dairy breakfast across the state during June, and you'll realize the pride there is in the Wisconsin dairy industry and its 9,700 mostly family-owned farms.

Of course the eggs, ice cream and herculean efforts were all part of Wisconsin's unique June Dairy Month 'Breakfast on The Farm' program. Oh, a few other states hold a breakfast or two, but Wisconsin is where it started and remains. It was in 1970, in Jefferson county, when the Clever Clovers 4-H Club was looking for a project for the annual Pure Milk Association dairy promotion contest. They invited members of the Jefferson business community to a breakfast on the farm and did it again the next year. The idea then went statewide.

Hopefully nonfarmers who attend a breakfast will remember a bit of what they learned — especially that their food comes from contented cows and caring farmers.

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