WASHBURN — High above Lake Superior’s south shore, the Tetzner dairy farm is set against a skyline broken by small woodlots and a handful of grain silos. In this far northern Wisconsin territory oftentimes associated with wild rivers, sprawling forests, and freshwater lakes, a network of family-operated dairies anchor a resilient agricultural community. On one memorable day in August, the Tetzner family propped open the barn doors, welcoming more than a thousand visitors to their property for Chequamegon Dairy Association’s 2019 Dairy Day.

“One of things that’s important to us is that the kids know where their food comes from. Their milk and ice cream comes from these cows, in this place,” said Rachel Pufall of Ashland, attending dairy day with her husband Frank and two young sons. “The kids get a connection to the food that we eat, and learn what our friends and the people that we care about do for a living.”

Visitors enjoyed a complimentary picnic-style lunch, featuring fresh milk by the half-pint and ice cream dessert produced on the farm. Volunteers served up some 800 hamburgers and bratwurst, plus 100 hot dogs. Additional helpers and family members took up positions at the calf barn, robotic milker, and other stations explaining the how-tos of running a successful dairy.

“Until people see it, they can’t believe that a robot can milk a cow,” said Peter Tetzner, manager of the 99-year-old Bayfield County dairy. “It’s always a big surprise.”

The family made the high-tech transition five years ago. Tetzner said that while the automatic milker can accommodate 65 cows, three times a day, he soon found a sweet spot with 60 animals.

“We get the same amount of milk with 60 as we did milking 80 cows before the robotic milker,” he said. “There were a few bugs to work out during the move to robotic but overall it’s been a good switch.”

While technological upgrades made an impression on grown-ups at Chequamegon Dairy Day, kids found engaging farm-tour favorites from the moment they stepped off the tractor-powered wagon that shuttled visitors from a cut-hay parking area to the home farm. Holstein calves were only an arm’s reach away, the traveling educational exhibit Little Farmhands attracted scores of young children, and Maggie the Interactive Cow proved to be an all-ages draw. A hand-painted fiberglass statue standing more than 5 feet high, Maggie is fitted with pliable synthetic udders that just about anyone can grip and try out traditional milking. For many, it provided a tangible connection to time-honored farm life.

Success on the honor system

Since family patriarch Philip Tetzner first oversaw installation of the farm’s dairy processing facility in 1976, up to one-half of their annual milk production has been dedicated to creating in-house products. A self-serve store on Nevers Road in the Bayfield Peninsula highlands, along with wholesale ice cream and milk distribution to grocers around Chequamegon Bay, offers customers a variety of purchase options.

“Once people find us, learn about our products, we can make a customer for life,” said Peter Tetzner, noting that the balance of their milk yield goes to National Farmers cheese plants. “There’s no antibiotics, no growth hormones. We offer high quality and I think it keeps families coming back for generations.”

At the farm’s self-serve store, patrons write down the items they are purchasing on an envelope, place money inside, and drop it together into a box. It’s an arrangement that keeps the Pufall family returning with their sons David and Auggie.

“There are good lessons here for the boys,” said Frank Pufall. “And it helps them understand they are part of a bigger world.”