New Generation of Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Look for a Future That Keeps Them on the Land, Following Their Passion
Kristyn Nigon moves a young calf to its hutch. (Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
GREENWOOD, Wis. – Days after a tornado ripped through their dairy farm, tearing the tops off four grain silos and nearly destroying six buildings, the Nigon family gathered at the kitchen table.
Marty and Kathy Nigon, along with their six adult children, had to make some hard decisions on that last Sunday in September 2019.
The family meeting lasted nearly three hours. Tears were shed as raw emotion from the devastation converged with a lifetime of good memories on the Clark County dairy farm.
“Everybody got to express their opinion,” Marty Nigon recalled. “And we all agreed we should build everything back.”
It was a testament to the resilience of dairy farmers slammed by natural disasters, years of low milk prices, runaway expenses and the pandemic.
“There are two things that will keep you farming,” Marty Nigon said his father told him when he was a boy. “One, you’ve got to really like it. And, two, you’ve always got to think next year will be better.”
Thousands of family farms like Nigon View Dairy are weighing their future, questioning whether they should keep going when the next round of hard times, which never seems far away, could force them out of business.
The collapse of small farms has been changing the landscape of Wisconsin — literally and figuratively — for years. Many have been losing money or are barely hanging on. Since 2011, the number of dairy farms in the state has fallen more than 43%, a reminder of the harm that low milk prices, intense competition and an oversupplied marketplace can inflict on farm families. In 2020, the state lost about 360 dairy farms, and for the first time, now has fewer than 7,000 of them.
No one wants to be the generation that loses the farm, says Chris Rueth, whose family has a 250-cow dairy operation in the Town of Loyal in Clark County.
“It’s in our blood,” he says.
Robots milk and feed the cows
How farmers plan for the years ahead varies widely, depending on their circumstances and whether the next generation even wants to someday take over the family business.
When the Rueths consider a major upgrade costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s for 10 years, not two.
They’re also mindful of not getting too far ahead of themselves in a business where sinking milk prices, poor weather for crops, even a trade war with China, wipe out profits.
Long-term planning has to be tempered with the current reality.
“Basically, you make it through fall harvest,” Rueth said. “Then you look back on what you did that year and see what you need to improve on.”
One thing seems certain. The small dairy farm from 10 years ago won’t be around in another decade if it doesn’t keep evolving. Many farms milking between 50 and 100 cows are at risk of shutting down because they don’t benefit from economies of scale or they can’t find hired help.
“When you look at the dairy industry, I don’t think small farmers have a lot of hope,” said Max Malm, whose family has a 120-cow operation in Loyal.
The big farms “just keep getting bigger and bigger,” he says.
Still, technology and innovation may help keep small and midsize operations afloat, even when other trends are against them.
Malm’s Rolling Acres has invested in robots that milk the cows whenever they feel like being milked, 24 hours a day, reducing labor costs and freeing up family members for other tasks.
One at a time, the cows stroll up to the milking station, nudge open the gate and step inside. A robotic arm swings down, sanitizes each teat and then attaches laser-guided suction cups to extract the milk. The cow munches on a snack dispensed by the machine as an incentive to cooperate.
If something goes wrong, Malm gets an alert on his smartphone that identifies the problem. Then he can decide whether it’s worth dropping what he’s doing and heading to the barn.
The barn has a robot that cruises down the feed lane, dispensing rations with laser-guided precision. The robot’s sensors communicate with a set of doors that open and allow it to enter a “kitchen” where a computer system measures and mixes the meals.
All this technology comes at a steep price, easily costing a million dollars for the milking robots and the barn that houses the system.
“You have to believe in it and want to do this the rest of your life,” Malm said. “I think I’m lucky my dad and my grandpa embrace it as well.”
Small farms can survive, futurist says
Towns like Loyal and Greenwood are spokes in a wheel where agriculture is the hub. In fact, Clark County has more dairy farms than any other county in Wisconsin. It has 67,000 dairy cows, nearly twice as many cows as people.
There are 16 processing plants in the area that make cheese, butter and other dairy products sold around the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars pour into the local economy from more than 700 dairy farms.
“I think if all the small farms go away, our rural communities will go away as well,” Malm said.
That doesn’t have to happen, says Jack Uldrich, a futurist from Minneapolis who says some of the changes occurring in agriculture, including a locally produced food movement, favor small farms.
“This is a huge opportunity for dairy farmers because consumers want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know how you’re treating your animals, how you’re a steward of the land, how you’re supporting local communities,” Uldrich said while on a visit to Clark County.
“Everyone thinks technology is taking over, but what they’re missing is that people are craving human connections, and they want to support small farmers,” Uldrich said.
He urges folks to embrace a childlike curiosity about the world and notions that may seem crazy to seasoned adults.
Crunchy cheese? Solid milk? “A lot of traditional farmers would say that’s ridiculous. But I think kids would say, ‘Hey, tell me more about it,’” Uldrich said.
Not long ago, some farmers probably dismissed “Greek yogurt” as barely a blip in yogurt sales. Now it represents about 50% of that business. In the brewing industry, some predicted a takeover by huge corporate interests. Then came an explosion in growth of craft and microbreweries.
“Keep an open mind, stay curious, keep asking questions. And if you can’t do it, ask your kids to do it,” Uldrich said. “If you want to survive in the future, you need to have a beginner’s mind.”
Small dairies will probably survive if their operating costs are low enough or they have a unique product that fetches a higher price. They’ll likely boost their income with alternative crops, like hazelnuts, and will use the sun and the wind to generate electricity.
Driverless tractors, drones and satellites looking down on every field are going to be routine on farms of the future.
Some may even create a future out of thin air with industrial-scale photosynthesis that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and with sunlight converts it into ethanol for fuel and ethylene used to make plastics.
Trade wars and diminished natural resources could favor farming on a local scale.
“We are going to return to small and medium-size farms that are distributed throughout the world,” Uldrich said.
In July 2022, Roehl Acres, a Clark County dairy farm run by Dennis and Suzie Roehl, will host Farm Technology Days, one of the largest agricultural shows in the nation.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Dennis Roehl says, adding that he first went to the show with his father, Lowell, in 1983.
The Roehls have considered installing robots on their farm that has a century-old barn.
“Everything’s always evolving,” Dennis says. “As long as we embrace the technology and bend with the times, I think there’s a future here.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering, in 1991 he chose to return to the farm started by his parents rather than pursue a job in the city.
“I love everything about it,” he says. “I love the smell of fresh-tilled dirt. If you’ve never smelled it, come out in the spring and you’ll know what I mean. And then you watch the plants popping out of the ground. It’s a big feeling of accomplishment.”
The tornado that galvanized a community
Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, was unusually hot and muggy. Marty and Kathy Nigon were driving home from La Crosse that evening when they got the call that left them shaken.
Their son, Luke, lives in Greenwood. He had heard that a tornado hit the farm, so he rushed out there to survey the damage.
It was really bad. The tops of the concrete grain silos, not just the metal domes, were torn off. Six buildings were heavily damaged.
Luke called his parents and tried to prepare them for what they’d soon see that night. “He was emotionally devastated, and when we got there, I understood why,” Marty said.
“As we were coming over the hill to the farm, it was dark, so we couldn’t see anything. But I said to my wife, ‘Are you ready for this?’ Our farm is not going to look the same.”
It was Kathy’s 55th birthday.
One of the silos had collapsed on the barn, killing three cows. Four heifers were injured in a shed that was torn in half. Every building was damaged, trees were uprooted and powerlines were down.
Then, neighbors and other farmers started showing up to help. They used trailers to move the livestock to another farm a mile down the road.
“We got the cows out of this barn around midnight,” Marty said. It was the first time in 41 years his animals had to be housed on someone else’s property.
The next four days galvanized the community where the Nigons are well known in the Future Farmers of America chapter, the schools and by folks who buy pumpkins, sweet corn, maple syrup and mulch from them.
“I think we had close to seven Mennonite churches here to help,” Marty said, as 40 to 50 people a day converged on the farm to assist in the cleanup.
Someone the Nigons didn’t know, from the southern part of the state, sent the family a check for $150. Their farm had been hit by a tornado a year earlier.
The Nigons thanked as many people as they could, in person, but it wasn’t easy to reach everyone.
“Whether you helped physically — picking up debris, building structures — or emotionally with kind words and acts of kindness such as monetary gifts or dropping off food, we thank you all from the bottom of our hearts. … We are proud to be a part of this community of friends, family and neighbors,” the family said on their Facebook page.
Marty has been milking cows since he was 15 and is now 61. His hips and knees are still in good shape, which is amazing considering the toll that working around livestock takes on a farmer’s body.
“As long as I have my health, which I do, I’m OK,” he says. “I still have the drive to keep doing this.”
He and Kathy have no intention of ever selling the farm.
“If one of our kids doesn’t want it, somehow I’d like to keep it in our family for the grandchildren,” Marty says. “Once these farms are sold, you can’t afford to get them back. They’re way too expensive.”
Their daughter Kristyn, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls last year with a bachelor’s degree in dairy science, may take over the farm someday, but right now she’s working for an equipment company in Durand.
Kristyn enjoys the cows, working outdoors and living in the country, but she’s not ready to take on the full responsibility of the family business.
“Especially with the cows, they tie you down every weekend. They’re like kids, but you can’t take them with you,” she said.
Still, she loves the farm and cherishes the memories of growing up there. Even during the years when milk prices sank or the crops were poor, she didn’t feel the strain her parents must have been feeling.
“Through the hard times, my mom and dad never showed it,” she said. “I mean, they stayed strong.”
This story is part of a joint project between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee PBS exploring the struggling dairy industry and its impact on rural Wisconsin. The Journal Sentinel maintained editorial control of the reporting, which is supported by grants from the PBS series FRONTLINE and the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit journalism organization.
This story is part of a collaboration with Milwaukee PBS through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.