- Posted August 2, 2012 by
Hamburg Township, Wisconsin
Team iReport featured this story
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Heat and droughts strike U.S.
America's Organic Dairy- A Family Weathers the Drought and Economy
Are you being affected by the drought? Share your personal story here.
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
The summer of 2012, is on track to become one of the worst droughts in the U.S. for nearly 50 years. It could get worse. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has already designated nearly 80 counties in six states as primary natural disaster areas caused by prolonged drought and excessive heat. To see how the drought is affecting one Midwestern farm, this CNN iReporter decided to cover an organic dairy farm in Wisconsin for a week. The hope- to get a behind the scenes look of how a family dairy farm is coping with the weather and the economy.
The Hamburg Hills Farm is located in Hamburg Township on top of a ridge overlooking the Coulee region in western Wisconsin- an area marked with bluffs, and deep valleys of the Mississippi River Valley. The farm was started by Jim Servais who was born in 1938, around the time of the Dust Bowl era. Jim, a former Marine, provided a tour of the property which now extends about 1000 acres. With pride as he surveyed the land he said, “It really makes me feel good all my hard work didn’t go to waste. I was able to hand down the farm to my son.” “It’s really hard to start a farm from scratch today,” Jim lamented.
If you look at their corn, you would see much of it tattered and torn. When I asked Jim about it he said, “We had a hail storm a few days ago…..in between the drought and the heat.” Time will tell if this crop will recover. In another plot of land a few scattered small corn shots struggled up from the parched earth. The long drought and high temperatures had taken a toll, but the corn had started to grow thanks to recent rain. Jim explained on their organic dairy farm, they planted their corn later in the season, which for this summer may help them avoid the total effect of the drought. For much of the Midwest, field corn was planted much earlier and with the excessive heat and drought, many farmers are looking at a total crop loss. Their only option may be to cut their wilted corn early, and use some of it for silage. For the Servais farm, being organic may have saved them from a major crop loss.
Throughout the week I learned more about the concept of organic dairy farming. Tim Servais, is the now the manager of the entire dairy operation. In his mid-40’s, Tim grew up on the farm, and took 4 years off to drive a milk truck. Eventually he decided organic dairy farming was something he wanted to try. “Being an organic dairy is challenging,” said Tim. “There is not a lack of people wanting to work, but once they see what it’s like on the farm they say ‘ewww’ especially when they have to clean up after the cows.” Today they have a team of reliable farm hands. The challenge is finding new, reliable replacements.
When you ask Tim about why a dairy farm should be organic, without hesitation and with pride he tells his story. “With an organic dairy you don’t use chemicals in the feed or on the crops. It’s a very natural atmosphere. It’s easier on the cattle since we are not pushing the product.” His farm is listed as part of the Organic Valley “Family of Farms” and takes pride in pointing that out.
Dairy farming is physically and mentally demanding. The key to his success of the Servais farm is their family, everyone pitches in. As Tim points out, “The hardest part of dairy farming is the hours. You are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You have to know a lot about a lot of different things and you have to milk the cows twice a day.” Nearby two of Tim’s son are busy running around feeding the cows, carrying piles of minerals, or feeding the calves. Feeding the calves is one of Jackson’s jobs. He quickly ran to the milk house, gathered a large nipple bottle, filled it with fresh milk and was soon on his way to feed the calves. Grandpa Jim was nearby to show him the finer points of calf feeding. When asked what he wanted to do when he got older, Jackson without hesitation said, “I want to be a dairy farmer like my dad…I like being around the animals.”
Across the path, fourteen year old Zach was busy hauling heavy bags of lime around the cow building. He told me his friend was driving his car earlier this year and had an accident. Unfortunately for Zach, he was the recipient of a concussion. Zach said, “I have to take it easy for a while…but I can’t wait to get back to working. I want to be a dairy farmer and hope to go to UW-Madison for a degree in Dairy Science.”
Near the milk house, 12 year old daughter Sabrina played with her collection of farm kittens. She also helps with the farm duties and sometimes her friends come to visit to play with the farm animals. “It’s great to have my friends come up here, they love the kittens. But when they see the cow barn and the see the manure, they leave quickly.” Sabrina seems to handle that pretty well. She has a pet horse, the devoted family dog Kelly, and a calf to keep her company when visiting friends are in short supply.
Lisa is the mother of the Servais family. She used to work in a milk lab, and met her future husband Tim there. She said, “I hoped Tim would eventually ask me out on a date. Finally he did, but I couldn’t figure out why he was so tired all the time. He always seemed to fall asleep on our dates.” Once Lisa got on the dairy farm, she quickly realized what it took to operate one. Now she serves as the business manager for the farm which is an essential role, especially given the high cost to operate a dairy enterprise today.
Grandfather Jim can’t believe how expensive dairy farming has become. He said, “You know we spend about $100,000 on fuel and at least $250,000 on minerals and feed. With the drought and heat, we may wind up spending more. If we lose our late corn crop we will have to spend more money on feed. If the price of fuel goes up, we have to spend more than we have.” When you begin to add up the expenses, dairy farming today is a multi-million dollar operation- not an inexpensive proposition for someone starting up a small farm.
In talking with Jim, you get a sense of the hardships he has survived by looking at his hands. On his right hand he is missing his middle finger- caused by farming accident. On his left hand, he struggles with rheumatoid arthritis in his fingers, bent at the tips almost at right angles. He confided, “Ya the family doesn’t want me around to do too much. They want me to take it easy, but I still have the passion for farming.”
As he looked out over the fields he pointed out their contour farming, the pastoral view of the cows overlooking the valley, and the rich earth they grow their alfalfa and corn. U.S. corn farmers expected this to be a record year when they planted, sowing nearly 100 million acres, the most since 1937. The prolonged drought and scorching temperatures quickly changed the best laid plans.
Tim thinks the drought won’t be as big of an issue on his dairy farm, at least for now. He remembers past years when temperatures were in the 100’s, but this year it has been a little different since the duration of the heat has been longer. Tim continued, “You might have one perfect year…I don’t know when that was…”
I asked Tim if he ever thought of doing anything else. “I have thought about that off and on and I think I’d like to work in a restaurant someday.” He continued, “You know dairy farming isn’t much different than working on a dairy farm. We work with animals, and in a restaurant you work with people.”
For this organic dairy, it was family that has helped the farm survive the heat, the hail, and the drought. With nearly two-thirds of the continental U.S. in a moderate to exceptional drought, it’s hard to predict what the end of the summer will look like. On this farm however, it appears that an organic philosophy, along with a strong family has helped them “weather the drought and the economy.”