Big and small farmers hoe different rows with same conviction
By Dan Hinkel
SPRING VALLEY TOWNSHIP-Tony Ends watched from atop a hill as Katie the pigtailed farm intern steered the tractor through a field of rocks and corn stubble under an unbroken blanket of dark April clouds.
Tears puddled in Ends' eyes. He talked about hope, and how it thrives despite the inevitability of defeat.
"To survive, we need justice. We need stewardship. We need community," he said.
He and his wife, Dela, run a subscription garden and goat milk soap-making business from their Scotch Hill Farm along an almost-unpopulated road near Rock County's border with Green County.
"We were just trying to live what we believe."
MAGNOLIA TOWNSHIP-Cow 1665 gave 26.6 pounds of milk before the gate pushed her out of the stall to make way for cow 1979.
As if to demonstrate how 3,500 acres of crops sustain 2,600 cows that gave 360,000 gallons of milk last year, 1979 made an unreflective face as she dropped a steaming load of green manure onto the floor and stepped in for the machine's turn at her udders.
Larson Acres did not accidentally become Rock County's largest dairy. Failure and bankruptcy are well-known fates in farming communities. The Larsons planned not to be a part of that trend.
A lot of Larsons depend on this farm on Highway 59 between Evansville and Albany.
"Ninety-nine percent of all the dairies in Wisconsin are family farms, some of them just have more family members," said Mike Larson, dairy manager and son of the farm's founder.
Is your way right, Mike Larson?
"I believe so," he said.
"You can do a good job with one animal or 100 animals or 1,000 animals."
From a bell to a barbell
Moderately sized one-family farms once dominated Wisconsin's countryside.
Call up the iconic image of four, six or eight people (perhaps wearing overalls), a red barn, two concrete silos, a small herd of animals, a tractor and a modest patch of corn and soybeans.
That's a stereotype, but one not without grounds in a past truth.
The curve of local farms once was a bell, with a cluster of mid-sized farms making the dome and smaller and larger farms in small numbers at the edges, said Randy Thompson, head of the Rock County branch of the UW-Extension.
A lot of moderately sized farms have died off through the years.
"There are fewer and fewer of those," said Ed Jesse, an agricultural economist at UW-Madison.
That leaves two different kinds of farms making up a larger percentage of local agriculture.
The biggest are bigger than they used to be.
"I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but just as the corner grocery store, the neighborhood grocery store has been replaced by the big box entities … we're seeing that same thing in agriculture," Thompson said.
Our farms don't bulge to the behemoth size of California dairies, but the larger farms have been eating land and adding animals to build profits as farm margins grow ever thinner, said Bruce Jones, a professor of agricultural economics at UW-Madison.
"Ones that remain are basically incorporating the assets of the ones that are going out of business. It's not a recent phenomenon. This has been going on for a century," he said.
"Those that remain have been successful. They didn't get good because they became big, rather they became big because they were good," Jones said.
Dairies have grown especially.
The 2005 Status of Wisconsin Agriculture Report from UW-Madison and UW-Extension noted that dairy farm numbers have dropped while average herd sizes have expanded gradually. The proportion of Wisconsin dairy farms with more than 200 cows grew by 135 percent from 1997 to 2002.
The 20 percent of Wisconsin farms that have more than 100 cows produce more than half of the milk produced in-state, a number that has risen with herd sizes.
They don't draw outcries about "factory farming," and they don't keep small cities of cows or pigs to offend neighbors during the hottest and stinkiest days of summer.
But if smaller farms are less noticeable, they are also common.
Small farms include hobby farms, retirement farms or farms that are too small to make enough money, so a family member needs to work away from the farm to pay bills. Many lifestyle and small farms lose money each year. Indeed, there are so many hobby farms they skew farm income numbers downward for farmers whose sole incomes come from farming.
"You'd be surprised around here at the number of folks who work at General Motors or some other business in town, but who live out in the country and farm several hundred acres," Thompson said.
Nearly half the state's farms are run by a farmer with a second job, according to the 2006 status report. The status report does not say how many of those farms are hobby farms on which farmers don't expect to make money and how many are farms unintentionally unprofitable enough to force farmers into other jobs.
Many small farmers use organic farming to maximize profits, although not all small farmers are organic farmers.
Still: "Organic farms in Wisconsin are almost exclusively small, family-run operations," according to the 2006 status report.
"The organic market has been a way that persons of more modest scale have been able to get more value added," Jones said.
The 2006 report described organic farming as the fastest growing portion of the state food market, but one that still supplies a tiny piece of state agriculture production.
Wisconsin was home to 659 certified organic farms in 2003. Estimates suggest there were about 880 certified organic farms in Wisconsin by 2004, according to the status report.
Choices: A family decision
Eight hundred heads swung over the metal gates on both sides of the barn, forming a living aisle for Mike Larson's Ford Lariat truck. The cows looked like jostling, drooling, mooing partygoers lined up for the guest of honor.
Four calves are born every day on average at Larson Acres.
The farm is milking about 1,450 cows on any given day, while more than a 1,000 more aren't milked because they are too young or otherwise un-milkable.
Eight hundred cows in one barn make the sound of a throbbing headache, but it's a noise the Larsons wanted and pursued.
"It was a huge decision we had to make," Mike said.
Family members decided in 1998 to expand the farm bought in 1957 by Don and Virginia Larson. The Larsons expanded from milking 180 cows in 1998 to milking 1,200 by the end of 2000. The Larsons now have enough cows to give three to every person in Magnolia Township.
Thirty people work the farm. Eleven of them are Larsons. If the dairy hadn't expanded, about half those Larsons couldn't work at the farm, Mike said.
"We're trying to make a living as much as everybody else is."
Farms have evolved-or devolved, depending on your point of view-since the days of rooster alarm clocks, draft horse-pulled plows and cattle brands.
The Larson Acres office looks like any city office, with computers and work furniture. The farm has a comfortable employee lounge with a schedule on a whiteboard. Employees get 401k and profit-sharing plans. The Larsons call their farm an "educational showplace." Visitors from 75 countries have toured the farm.
In the milking parlor, the cows are led in and out of the milking stalls in platoons by workers and automatic gates. As they mill into position, workers smear a yellow sanitizing agent on their teats. Screens record each cow's performance and offer past milking stats, like digital cow baseball cards.
"It is a science," Mike said.
Although Mike Larson stresses efficiency and consistency like a shop foreman, this farm does not closely resemble a "factory," as the unwanted description would imply. But it is clearly different from other local dairies.
Outside a machine is pumping liquid manure from a brown lagoon that wafts a rotten, sweet smell that clings to the nostrils, although the smell was not nauseatingly strong or distracting on a clear April day.
A thick hose ran out to a field in the nearby Amish country, near the Larsons' second cow barn. There a tractor disked the manure directly into the soil.
More feed. More milk. More manure. More feed. More milk. More manure.
More room for more Larsons.
"It's one way to do it," Mike said.
"That's what we chose."
Choices: A personal mission
The Ends' farm is a ramshackle Noah's Ark built of scavenged materials and free-roaming animals that look feral but are safely domesticated.
Next to the farm is a single acre of land. If there were a measure of how crucial an acre of land were to its farmer, this acre would boast a record amount of importance per square inch.
"It's fresh. It's local. It's chemical free," Tony said.
Dela and Tony worked full-time for years to support their fledgling goal, but they made a pact to farm the land by their values.
"It's not a romantic notion really to try to grow your own food. It's hard, hard work," Tony said.
"We're holding our heads above water," Dela said.
While the Ends don't hold leases on unending carpets of corn and soybeans, their farm has grown too. They started delivering vegetables and herbs to five customers in 1994. They hope to deliver to 200 in Wisconsin and Illinois this growing season. Full-time jobs have been pared to part-time jobs as the farm has made more money.
They make money selling produce, but the Ends show special affection-like salespeople-for their soap-making business.
Dela turns the milk she squeezes from the farm's goats into a selection of pleasantly soft smelling soaps. They grossed $30,000 with the soap business last year. The Ends are working for a government grant they will capture if they make a certain profit. They are trying to build a cooperative of farmers who help each other and protect their recipes.
"She turns $1.65 of raw milk into $180 of milk soap," Tony said.
The Ends speak in the language of thrift, because scavenging has always been necessary. There is no shiny new tractor in the barn. The goats are milked by hand. The greenhouse they use to start plants is not pretty, but it's a greenhouse.
"We didn't have a pickup truck when we started," Tony said.
They use a walk-in cooler they bought from the defunct Janesville Kohl's grocery store. The farm has that classic small farm feel, in which the useful and the broken down mix together so that the functionality of any piece of metal is never certain.
Animals including chickens, goats, sheep, a pony, dogs, and hissy, territorial geese come and go as they please.
Tony took the idea for the farm to eight lenders.
They responded: "Great idea! But we won't finance it."
They're doing this because they believe deeply in conserving resources, and caring for land at the smallest level. Tony-a man of deeply cut, serious eyes and deliberate words-is religious about his goal.
"It's a personal mission."
If you don't think farm politics are touchy, call a farmer and ask how much his or her farm makes in subsidies. Hold the phone away from your ear.
But sensitivities are understandable among people who wake early and work long hours for small profits to make food and milk that goes into the fridges of people who move next to farms and act indignant when they smell manure.
Mike Larson concedes that his farm takes in its share of subsidies.
Although the farm took about $1.2 million from 1994 to 2004, according to the Environmental Working Group, 40 producers in the state took more federal money.
Larson echoed many other farmers when he said he wished the business paid enough that farms didn't need subsidizing.
You won't find Tony Ends high on the list of subsidy takers, although he did pursue the soap-making grant.
Ends keeps a list of complaints about the dominant system of large farming near the top of his head. He generally doesn't blame large farmers who use mainstream fertilizing and animal raising methods so much as he blames a system that makes large scale, chemical-using farming seem like the only option. That system pollutes the environment, contributes to harsh conditions for migrant workers, mistreats animals, keeps people from knowing their food sources and depletes soil nutrients without replacing them, he said.
Farmers pursue huge size, blowing up a balloon of production and pollution that one day will have to burst, he said.
"I look at the facts. I'm very concerned about our rural communities. It's a short term gain and a long term loss," he said.
Ends was involved with a lawsuit against the Larsons involving the site of the family's second cow barn. The Larsons lost the last round of the dispute when the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a previous loss. The Larsons will next argue the issue in a Rock County court, Mike said. The case is over as far as the Ends are concerned, Dela said.
Mike can't say why some disapprove of the way his family runs its farm. He says "sustainability," the same as Ends does, but he means sustaining the farm's viability for decades.
"It's a business that can be here 50 years from now," he said.
The Larsons work more with the state Department of Natural Resources than they did before they expanded, Mike said. He makes the point that if his farm were poisoning people, some of them would be Larsons.
"We live here. We drink the water," he said.
His farm is a family farm, and it meets a crucial criteria: last year was the first in 31 years in which a Larson didn't show an animal at the Rock County 4-H Fair. They'll be back in 2007.
Larson doesn't judge how a farmer farms, although he emphasizes a simple personal philosophy of doing things right, however a farmer sees right:
"I don't think there's a right way to do it."
"I'm very optimistic," Mike Larson said.
He's optimistic that the family's decision to take their farm huge in 1998 will mean a profitable business for family members long after his farming strength gives out.
Tony Ends is confident that his system is right.
"My heart goes out to big farmers. How can a system like that continue?" he asked.
"We get a lot out of the little bit of space. What good is it to make a success if the whole rural community around you goes to hell?"
He pointed to Katie Korson, a farm intern from Michigan learning about the Ends' methods. Her parents run a tiny beef cattle operation. She wants to go back to Michigan and use a piece of land for small-scale growing.
"Anything that's sustainable. Something that can make a small farm survive," she said.
Ends spoke to a simple premise: different farms require the same hard work for the same small margins.
"Large scale, small scale. They all work hard."