After a year off, breakfast on the farm returns in Rock County

John Oncken
Pancakes were ready to be eaten with a side of maple syrup.

Saturday was a sunny, comfortable day, just the kind of a day to eat breakfast somewhere other than at home... so how about on a farm, in a tent with hundreds (maybe thousands) of other eager eaters?

Great idea! So off to the McNally Family Farm at Milton we went. Unlike a year ago when the family was prepared to host the 44th annual Rock County Dairy Breakfast that never took place, this one was actually going to be held.

I did a bit of wondering during the week past: Would people come out for the event after a year of no breakfast? If so, how many? And would they all be wearing masks?

No fear. As we got close to the McNally farm we could see the acres of parked cars, the cars leaving and arriving. It was obvious that part of my question was answered – the  crowds did indeed come out. And, as we joined the masses in the food line, it was obvious that skipping a beat did not slow down the 44th Rock County Dairy Breakfast even one bit.

A family farm and red barn

The host farm probably fits what many consumers think a dairy farm should be: family owned by Jeff and Tonia McNally, their children Emma and Owen and Jeff’s mother Angie. A red barn sits on the property, albeit a free stall barn, with a Double 6 parlor in which the 120 registered Holsteins are milked 3 times a day, averaging just under 31,000 pounds of milk that is sold to Dairy Farmers of America to be made into cheese.  Located on a quiet rural road, the visitors could see it all in contrast to many such events where the barn and cows are not open for close-up viewing.

The family farm's about 500 acres of mostly corn and soybeans are primarily stored in plastic bags and bales and used for cattle feed. Note: the corn in the field near the barn was the tallest I had seen this spring, mostly over a foot high. 

I asked Jeff if he had thought about the future of the farm. “It’s too early,” he replied.  “Emma is attending UW-Platteville and Owen is in high school, and while both work on the farm now, I may be the only future. We don’t know.”

A need for lots of space

In order to leave space between eaters, there were three eating locations: the garage/repair shop, the calf barn and a big tent. The food (pancakes, sausage, cheese, apple sauce, milk and coffee) was prepared in another tent with the serving lines. The ice cream was served at a location amidst the rows of commercial exhibitors. I never did get my ice cream.

My question asking if people would come after a year off was answered by Rene Johnson, Evansville, a longtime ag loan officer now at the State Bank of Cross Plains, who was working at the ticket sales booth. “We have sold 3,500 tickets so far,” she said. “And it’s about 10:30 am with people still coming.”

The June Dairy Breakfasts are an opportunity for consumers to learn where their food comes from and how it is produced, and for farmers, it is a time to show and tell the story. June Dairy Month is a big event in Wisconsin with thousands of dairy folks involved in organizing and running the events and many more thousands of people eating, talking, learning and enjoying.

A little bit of history

It was in the late 1930s when a national drug store initiated “National Milk Month” as a way to increase their dairy counter business. In 1940, Wisconsin Governor Julius P. Heil officially proclaimed it “June Dairy Month."

In 1970, the Clever Clovers 4-H Club in Jefferson County was looking for a project for a dairy promotion contest. The idea of inviting a few city folks from nearby Fort Atkinson to a breakfast on the farm took hold and Craig and Laura Beane offered their Holwis Farm at Fort Atkinson as a possible site. The Fort Atkinson Chamber of Commerce sent invitations “to visit a dairy farm and have breakfast... limited to the first 100 people that call.” It was a booming success as 155 people actually attended and the idea spread across the state.

Julie Funk, president of the Rock County Dairy Promotion Council, said the near 200 volunteers were eager to resume the county's dairy breakfast after the delay. It worked, and the tradition continues with a tentative host farm ready for next year. (Remaining 2021 dates and sites can be found on the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin website.)

Attend, meet, eat and see while learning about dairying and dairy foods from cow to plate. You’ll enjoy!

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at