Craving the farm life
Perhaps no other line of work is more at the mercy of outside forces than farming. Whether it’s the weather, milk prices, global trade practices, or immigration policies, it seems that farmers are always hoping to find some kind of sweet spot. It’s the same way even for dairies such as Crave Brothers Farm, a 2017 Wisconsin Family Business Award winner. No matter how much it grows, the 2,700-acre farm and cheese-making operation, located outside of Waterloo, is not immune to forces outside of its control.
In some respects, Charles Crave, who began farming with his brother George in 1978, has seen better days. Asked how the farm business is right at the moment, he bemoans an excess of rain, which causes a different set of problems than a drought. While drought conditions, which existed just five years ago, are more mentally stressful, Crave is hoping that rain moderates enough in July and August to produce better, well, produce. The situation speaks to that sweet spot — not too much, not too little — that farmers pray for.
“I’d have to say rather dismal,” he says when asked ‘How’s business?’ “We’ve had gobs of rain and crops are looking lousy. So for a business that grows, it can be discouraging, but that’s part of life and we can’t let some of these realities become discouraging.”
Got too much milk
Fortunately, dairy farmers don’t have to be dependent on one harvesting season, and there is a bit of risk management through the diversification of a traditional dairy farm. When the viability of crops is threatened, Crave Brothers can lean on other crops, milk-producing cows, cheese, biogas, and 13 family members that pitch in. Some Crave Brothers crops are perennials such as alfalfa, so it’s eggs are not all in the springtime-germination basket.
On several occasions in 2014, farmers got upwards of $24 per hundredweight for their milk, which happens to be the largest source of revenue for farms. The price farmers now command is $16.59 per hundredweight, and that’s about $1.50 below where Charles Crave would like to see it. Among the factors that are holding milk prices down, Crave cites a worldwide glut. “With milk prices right now, most folks are treading water,” explains Crave, who handles the farm’s administration and bookkeeping. “There is not too much room for capital improvements or debt servicing at that that price. It’s pretty tight.”
Before this year, declines in agricultural exports also impacted milk prices and farm income. After a period of over-purchasing various milk products, China realized it had too much inventory in storage and began to ratchet back its buying in 2015, contributing to a 20% drop in what the market was paying for a hundredweight of milk, according to Jack Heinemann, bureau director for the Wisconsin International Agriculture Business Center. Prices got as low as $14.10 per hundredweight.
According to Heinemann, other contributing factors were the Chinese baby formula scare, which led to infant deaths and resulted in import restrictions, the lifting of longstanding European agriculture production limits and a $10 billion investment in the modernization of European dairy operations, and a Russian embargo on the importing of dairy products. The Russian embargo primarily affected agricultural exports from the European Union, forcing the Europeans to more aggressively sell in other global markets.
Canada, America’s largest trading partner and third largest for dairy products, has been another sticking point. Earlier this year, Canada implemented a pricing policy that dropped the amount of dairy product entering Canada. As a result, Grasslands Dairy Products, a milk plant based in Greenwood, Wis., announced it would no longer accept milk from dozens of Wisconsin farms, and even though nearly all of the displaced milk found a home, “that will show up as lost sales,” according to Mark Stephenson, director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at UW–Madison.
Crave says his farm was not directly impacted by the dispute, but it still felt the effects. “We sell some of our milk through a co-op, and they would’ve sold to Grassland Dairy or some of these other buyers,” he notes. “Let’s suppose another buyer picks up milk that was going to Grassland. Well, now they might tell my buyer that they only need half of what they took last month. So yes, it affects everyone. It really does.”
In 1978, Charles and George Crave began with 57 cows on 160 rented acres, but in 1980 they bought a 220-acre farm in Waterloo and began building that operation with 90 cows. Charles and George, along with brothers Tom, who joined in 1981, and Mark, who joined in 1988, have built Crave Brothers into a 2,100-cow operation.
The Crave Brothers family, from left to right: George, Patrick, Charles, Andy, Tom, Jordan, and Mark.
In 2001, the construction of a cheese plant added value to milk production, and George Crave became a licensed cheese maker who manages the cheese plant, which receives all its milk from Crave Brothers Farm. Over the years, the number of employees has grown from four to today’s staff of nearly 80; there are 35 employees on the farm and 40 at the cheese factory. The family has an evolving succession plan to transfer ownership to the next generation of Craves represented by Jordan, Andrew, and Patrick.
Some of the employees are migrant workers who, along with first-generation employees, make up the bulk of farm labor. A number of Wisconsin farmers have been quoted in the press as saying President Trump’s immigration policies, including the threat of deportation, have made migrant workers feel less welcome. As a result, farmers are having trouble finding enough migrant workers to do the milking and the other work they have traditionally done on dairy farms.
While there are temporary visas for seasonal agricultural workers, year-round workers are needed for 365-day milking operations, and they don’t have the same protections as seasonal workers. Asked whether that’s the case with Crave Brothers, Charles Crave notes that it’s a bit more difficult to find migrant workers, but that’s primarily driven by competition from other industries such as the construction and service industries.
“As an employer, I just want to make sure that we offer people the same opportunities as what my great-grandfather would’ve had,” he states.
Transforming the farm into what it is today required hard work, perseverance, and innovation, and the latter is evident in Crave Brothers’ sustainable farm practices. Ten years ago, when their dairy numbered more than 1,000 cows, the Crave family decided to install a manure digester. The idea was to turn waste into energy, and the digester not only produces enough energy to power the entire dairy farm and cheese-making plant, it also generates enough power for 300 homes.
Other innovative practices include conservation tillage, water conservation, nutrient preservation and management, and barns with curtain sides and free stalls that emphasize cow comfort. The Crave brothers have traveled to teach others their dairy management techniques, and they keep a close eye on manure management practices of farmers in the Yahara River watershed, which are undertaken to divert phosphorus from area lakes.
“A lot of the industry is not only watching them but we’re learning from each other, perhaps at a greater level than ever,” Crave states. “We in agriculture are very much aware of climate change. There’s a reason our crops look crummy this year. It’s because of the huge amounts of rain, so we know that weather extremes are more severe than we’ve experienced in the past.”
Today, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese wins state, national, and international awards, but it was the Crave family’s commitment to sustainability and innovative practices that impressed judges in the 2017 Wisconsin Family Business Awards program. The family’s contributions to the dairy industry also were cited for its Grand Award in the Medium Company category.
“It was just an incredible affirmation of not only the business but particularly the family,” notes Crave, “and the efforts that generations have put forth toward success as a family and success as a farm.”
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