New dairy farmers find tough road, Johnsrud says
Arnie Johnsrud knows the difficulties of a young person starting out as a dairy farmer.
He was one of those farmers.
“Starting out from scratch today can be done, but it is difficult,” said Johnrud. “You need a passion for it and the right niche market,”
Aerica Bjurstrom,agricultural agent, University of Wisconsin Extension-Kewaunee County, agrees that a new dairy farmer faces a tough road.
“Starting a dairy farm requires an enormous amount of capital up front,” she said. “Simply finding an old farm with a barn and silo to rent isn’t going to be feasible … besides, the cost of animals, buildings, equipment and feed required to make a profit often discourages startup farmers from getting into the business.”
She can only think of three Kewaunee County farmers in the last few years who have moved on to old farms and started a dairy.
Johnsrud has a unique perspective on farming as both a retired dairy farmer and a retired teacher, who taught agriculture at Kewaunee High School from 1993 to 2013.
Agriculture education today has moved away from “cow and plow” classes, he said. Most schools offer more diverse courses in horticulture, small animal veterinary services, landscaping, wildlife conservation and many other ag-related areas.
With only 2 percent of the population in production agriculture, Johnrud said the classrooms would be empty if schools didn’t offer these new agriculture-related classes, which offer good career opportunities.
Like many small farmers, Johnsrud combined dairy farming with a job outside the farm to make ends meet while raising a family over the last 20 years.
When Johnsrud finished his military service in Vietnam in 1972, he only had the clothes on his back and an interest in agriculture.
Using the GI Bill, he attended UW-River Falls, where he majored in agriculture, graduating in 1977. He taught agriculture in Brillion for a year and then returned to Algoma where he worked in the shipyards.
“I was a young guy with no collateral,” he said, but he wanted to be a farmer. With interest rates at 18 percent, it was prohibitive to buy farmland in the area at that time, he said.
Since the 1960s, Arnie’s father had operated a hobby farm with 10 cows on County OO in Algoma and Arnie would help him milk the cows. Using his money from the shipyards, he began to rent the barn from his father, repairing it and expanding the herd.
Finally in 1988, he and his wife, Geanne, had saved enough to buy an 80-acre farm on Kennedy Road in the town of Ahnapee with a big old barn and farmhouse with sagging walls that needed a lot of work, Johnsrud said.
They brought over their cows and began a dairy farm there.
Geanne didn’t particularly want to farm, but she knew it was her husband’s dream, so she learned how to milk cows after he was rolled over by a hay wagon and broke his wrist, Johnsrud said.
In 1992, they were renting another 80 acres from Geanne’s brother and struggling to pay the bills and raise their three children when a part-time position for an agricultural teacher opened at Algoma High School..
Johnsrud leaped at the opportunity to supplement their income, but he had to update his teaching license.
“Flexibility was my forte in those years,” he said.
He was offered the job and was honored to be following in the footsteps of Roy Koss, an agriculture teacher who was esteemed at the high school.
“To have his job was just what I wanted,” said Johnsrud, but because the Algoma School District couldn’t afford to make it a full-time job, he felt compelled to take a full-time position teaching agriculture in Kewaunee when it opened up a year later.
“It was a good fit,” said Johnsrud. “I liked working with young people.”
But the problem was that it was at least 10 miles farther from his farm and he often had to come home to do his chores and then go back to school for a meeting.
“In spite of the fact that we had three kids, I was always short on labor,” he says today, explaining how his son, who played football for Algoma, would often ride his bike to morning practice, come home to milk the cows and then ride back for afternoon practice.
“With farming it is so easy to get behind financially, and it takes so long to catch up,” he said.”And whenever you are ahead, you end up reinvesting that money in the farm.”
Over the last 28 years, Johnrud and his family have torn down the old farmhouse and built a new three-bedroom home with high ceilings. They have remodeled the barn with new stalls. They grew green peas and winter wheat and at one point were milking 54 cows.
But they sold the cows in 2000.
“We just couldn’t keep up,” Johnsrud said.
This year, for the first time, they are also renting out their land.
Their contract for growing peas had expired. Johnsrud explained that the pea canning company has pulled out of Northeast Wisconsin and gone to warmer climates where farmers can grow a second crop.
He noted that the expiration of a contract for a cash crop is just one of the problems farmers faced.
“It is hard for young farmer to be successful today,” he said. “It is really about problem-solving, because the next crisis is just down the hill.”
He believes, however, that there are good opportunities for new farmers in organic milk and grass-fed beef..
About half of his former students today are employed by the large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the county, he said.
“They are good-paying jobs,” he noted.
On most smaller farms, one spouse often has to work off the farm – at least to provide health insurance, he said.
He said that it is hard for the small dairy farmer to compete with the large dairy operators who have both investors and larger subsidies to tide them through years when crops fail or milk prices are low.
But he said that he doesn’t regret operating a small dairy farm.
“I would never change anything about our farm,” he said. “I like it here – the setting and the majestic barn.”
But he said that the “labor takes its toll.”
He noted how difficult estate planning can be for older farmers like himself.
“If you have three kids and only one wants to farm, is he going to be able to pay off his siblings?” said Johnsrud, noting that with land prices in the county, his children may find it easier to sell the farm. He said that he had hoped that his youngest son might be interested in taking over the farm.
“Right now, the answer is no,” he said. “If you have what is considered a small dairy farm today – 50 to 500 cattle – and you have kids who want to start out with that, you have a better chance,”, he said.
Retired from his full-time job in Kewaunee, this fall Johnsrud is working as an assistant teacher for a diesel lab class at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Sturgeon Bay and serving as commander of the Forestville Post 372 American Legion post. He also is working as a volunteer for Farm Technology Days 2017 in Kewaunee County.
“I am still interested in the technology and the changes … but we are going away from small farms to big agriculture, he said.
Right now, he is contemplating what to do about his own barn’s roof, which needs to be replaced.
Johnsrud said that he can’t justify the $30,000 cost of a new roof for a barn that he no longer uses. He is considering contacting some Amish farmers, who will often take down a barn and rebuild it on one of their farms.
“I just hate to see this stoic barn go down,” he said. “But the old big red barn isn’t conducive to the new agriculture anymore. It’s the end of an era.”
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: New dairy farmers find tough road, Johnsrud says