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Married to the farm

Feeding the world is an example of a good deed that’s sometimes punished, but it takes more than that to discourage farm families.

A family that farms together — (kneeling, front) Andrew and Kimberly Keller and (standing, from left) Kareen and Mark Keller and Sandy and Tim Keller with holsteins young and old.

A family that farms together — (kneeling, front) Andrew and Kimberly Keller and (standing, from left) Kareen and Mark Keller and Sandy and Tim Keller with holsteins young and old.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

When Tim and Sandy Keller were contemplating marriage, Tim told her: “You marry me, you marry the farm.” Sandy, who grew up on the west side of Madison, took them both on and became a partner with Tim in Kellercrest Registered Holsteins in 1988.

Twenty-one years ago, it was a little different for Tina Hinchley of Hinchley’s Dairy Farm, who described an agricultural version of The Bachelorette. “I was not a farmer’s daughter, but I knew I wanted to marry a farmer, so I went ‘farmer hunting’ before the internet and put an ad in the paper,” she recounts. “That is how I found my farmer.”

Hinchley notes that eventual husband Duane and 13 other farmers replied, and she should have invented a website called FarmersOnly.com. However they got together, these Dane County farm families have lived through it all — recession, farm crises, drought, and temporary prosperity — and survived to tell about it. That’s exactly what they did in our recent visits to Mount Horeb and Cambridge.

Keller family crest

Kellercrest’s most indispensible employees are Tim and Sandy Keller and their two children, Andrew and Kimberly, Tim’s brother Mark Keller, father Daniel, 83, who makes the six-mile drive to help almost daily, and five migrant workers. Tim’s father and mother Jeanne launched Kellercrest in the 1960s and in the late 1990s they transitioned ownership to Tim, Sandy, Mark and his wife Kareen. Tim, 55, has never left the farm while Mark was in the agronomy and nutrition business for a dozen years.

Top, an aerial view of Kellercrest farm; below, at the 2017 Wisconsin State Fair, daughter Kimberly (#0249) stands proud with award-winning winter yearling Lisbeth.

Among their constant worries is weather severity, and this year’s ample rainfall hurts some crops — and some farmers — more than others. With a farm situated on hilly terrain, the Kellers have natural drainage. Their contoured planting and tilling practices that keep soil and its nutrients in place, and the combination planting of corn and alfalfa in one field — rather than one field that is all corn — holds more water within the field and reduces runoff. Like most dairy operations, Kellercrest grows crops for feed mix for its 330-cow herd, not for the consumer market.

The bulk of farm revenue comes from the sale of its milk to a milk plant, Klondike Cheese Co. in Monroe, but it also derives revenue from animal genetics (selling cow embryos overseas and bulls to artificial insemination companies). In July, it got $18.34 per hundredweight for its milk, which is not as good as the high mark of 2014 but better than the aftermath when milk prices collapsed.

While access to credit for farm operations isn’t an issue, the drop in milk prices, the drought of 2012, and the recession of 2009 have left little for capital improvements. Tim Keller acknowledges that 2014 was a great year, but the farm was still trying to recover from 2009 and 2012. “What irritates me to no end is that some people think you’re just making money hand over fist,” Keller notes. “It just burns you.”

Milking the Holsteins is done three times a day — at 4 a.m., noon, and 8 p.m. — winter, spring, summer, and fall. That’s why migrant workers are needed year-round, and the current anti-immigrant climate only adds to farm labor challenges. In truth, migrant workers are welcomed by a lot of businesses in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and hospitality. 

“For the first two years [of ownership], I had high school help and I had help from another gentleman down the road, but since I’ve had Latino employees for the past 15 years now, I’ve only had one American ever look for work here,” Keller states. “Just one. What does that tell you? It’s sad.”

The other immigrant-related lament is the perception that they only make the minimum wage, when in fact many make double that. Keller’s highest-paid migrant worker makes $16 per hour with housing provided, as well. “You can’t do that [pay the minimum wage],” Keller says. “You can’t compete for labor with that. They’re not going to stay here for $7.25 an hour.”

Kimberly, a sophomore majoring in animal science at Iowa State University, is the most likely family member to take over someday, but she has options beyond farming and after decades of operating a farm, Tim is less inclined to steer her in that direction. As a young farmer, his appetite for risk was considerable, but he’s become more vocal about the frustrating aspects of running a farm. They include unsubstantiated claims of animal abuse and being the scapegoat for phosphorus in local lakes when much of it comes from urban sources.

“I almost hate to say this, but I can’t even encourage the young generation to go into this business because it’s just a ruckus,” he states. “To me, it’s not fair. We feed the world and we get kicked around like we offer nothing.”

Tim and Mark note that Kellercrest is part of two watersheds — Pecatonica and Sugar River — and has received national awards and industry press coverage for its achievements in water quality and erosion control. They were part of the Pleasant Valley Project, where they worked with the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency to divert phosphorus from local streams. “As we call it, this is the continental divide up here,” Mark says. “Both watersheds near us have trout streams.

“Part of this was, why are we winning the award just doing what we should be doing?” Mark adds. “Well, the point is that a lot of people are not doing the right thing, and we just feel like we’re doing what we need to do. Economically it just makes sense, common sense.”

To strengthen its connections with the food industry, and to help combat misconceptions about farming, Kellercrest has participated in several farm tours and school tours, and it has established working relationships with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and taken advantage of World Dairy Expo. The observation of one farm-tour visitor demonstrated just how much public education work the Kellers and other farmers still have in front of them.

“You get some interesting questions and comments thrown at you,” Tim Keller notes, “and some are from out in left field. One guy goes, ‘I didn’t know cows had four udders.’ Well, he’s looking at four teats and he thought each teat was an udder.”

(Continued)

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