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.
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.”
Tina Hinchley’s newspaper ad was a special way to find the man that would let her work beside him. She didn’t want to be the farm wife that raised the kids, kept the house clean, and cooked the meals. She wanted to be in the barn working with her children in tow “and making it all work together.”
Duane, Anna, and Tina Hinchley represent the current and next-generation operators of Hinchley’s Dairy Farm.
For the past 21 years, she and Duane have done just that. This year, in fact, thanks to the use of a fungicide, and barring a damaging weather event or an early frost, they anticipate a bumper crop of corn, which is used for feed and ethanol. They have high hopes for a strong crop of wheat, but they are keeping their fingers crossed with soybeans. Summing up the situation in late July, during a week in which two weather events produced five inches of rain, Duane Hinchley marveled at how good his corn crop looked, but lamented the fact his soybeans “don’t like wet feet.”
The Hinchleys have taken steps to mitigate any damage from above-normal precipitation. “We have a lot of drain tile installed in the soil and ditches to take care of the excess water,” he notes. Not that he wants the water completely shut off, but at that point he acknowledged that two weeks of dry weather would be a blessing for everyone.
So would a little bit more understanding of how farms actually operate. With the farm labor situation getting to a critical point, Tina does most of the milking. The Hinchleys don’t rely on migrant labor, but sometimes they call on friends willing to work part-time. “You can probably plant crops with just your family but when it gets to fall, you need a couple of bodies to help you for two or three months,” Duane says. “It’s getting terrible.”
At the 4:30 a.m. milking — a true test of devotion to be sure — Tina has been stood up by several would-be laborers, even those who swore they were dependable. Of the Hinchley’s four children, daughter Anna, a student at UW–Madison, is the most likely to run the farm someday. For now, they mostly rely on high school and college students and Tina tries to inspire them to get involved in Future Farmers of America. “They might not be open to farming but may be open to being involved in other parts of agriculture,” she says. “When it comes to agriculture journalism, telling stories, or agricultural mechanics, there are so many opportunities for kids. If they don’t know that it’s available for them, they end up going into other fields.”
Another alternative for milking is the use of robots. “A robot can handle 60 to 65 cows, and right now we’re milking about 130,” she notes. “It would double the herd, so that it would accommodate her [Anna’s] future. It’s not going to take away all of your labor needs but we can focus on other things instead of me having to personally milk cows six hours a day.”
Recruiting human beings would be easier if not for what Tina considers a needless controversy over the docking (shortening] of cow tails, which was done to prevent urine and manure from getting on the animal. Thanks to public pressure, the Hinchley’s milk processor no longer accepts milk from farms that tail dock their herd, and she blames animal rights propaganda and pressure. One video suggested that docking is done with garden shears, when it’s actually done by a common, bloodless procedure — elastration — used on cattle. For sanitary reasons, she predicted a ban on tail docking would result in higher antibiotic use, which is cost prohibitive for many, but it also will impact labor.
“We hire people [to milk] and those tails come back,” she notes, “and having a cow’s tail soaked in urine wrapped around your neck is not going to make you want to work on a farm.”
While robotic milking holds a great deal of promise for farm productivity, technology is already at play when planting crops. Infrared technology can tell farmers how healthy their crops are from satellite imagery, and vendor partners can map farm fields to the point where less is planted in certain areas because the soil will not support it. In his combine, Duane Hinchley has a GPS system with a field monitor that determines how much to plant and where. “Precision planting,” he says, “has been a great thing.”
Farm bill comes due
These are not the best days to run a farm profitably. After reaching healthy levels in 2014, commodity and milk prices have been below the break-even point since, which translates into declining farm income. Labor is hard to come by, and restrictive immigration policies aren’t rolling out the welcome mat for migrant workers.
Brenda Kluesner, a loan officer and crop insurance manager for Royal Bank in Cassville, Wis., has seen the problems first hand. Three years ago, corn would fetch $4 to $5 per bushel but now farmers are lucky to get $3.50. Milk prices soared to $24 per hundredweight, but soon collapsed to as low as $14 before inching back up. Most of the reasons — a Chinese pull back on purchasing, and a global glut aided by the lifting of European production limits — are beyond an American farmer’s control.
With any luck, the same can’t be said of getting Congress to act on agricultural legislation. Kluesner recently testified before Congress on what she’d like to see in a new farm bill, but two things stand out — an increase in loan program limits to $2.5 million from the current $1.4 million, and protecting the crop insurance program from attempts to weaken it.
As Kluesner explains, Farm Services Agency loan guarantees allow lenders to offer long-term, fixed-rate financing to farmers, giving them stable loan repayments and helping young farmers get on their feet.
The crop insurance program helps farmers recover from weather-related catastrophes, but since the government subsidizes part of it, budget cuts are a possibility. Without the program’s subsidies, private crop insurance would be unaffordable for most farmers.
“By keeping a strong crop insurance policy, it enables producers to stay farming during bad-weather catastrophes,” Kluesner says. “It also allows them to repay their loans and remain solvent.”
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