SINSINAWA — Since 1847, people of the Catholic faith have been farming at Sinsinawa Mound in southwest Wisconsin. The tradition continues today through the lease of land to an organic dairy farmer, the cultivation of food from the sisters’ kitchen garden and a relatively new program at the Mound: the Sinsinawa Collaborative Farm.
In 2017, the Sinsinawa Dominicans decided to establish a collaborative farm on their 423-acre estate, offering land, education, infrastructure and mentorship to beginning farmers. Sister Christin Tomy took the lead on the project, learning about some of the biggest barriers beginning farmers face and creating a program where those beginning farmers could explore a career in agriculture with little financial risk or upfront capital investment.
“The idea of the farm was born out of the realities these farmers face,” Tomy said.
“It’s been a great opportunity to learn without making a large investment,” said Kristin Conley, who owns Blue Barrel Produce with her husband.
Conley was one of six beginning farmers who applied for the inaugural growing season in 2017, meeting with Tomy and indicating their interests in agriculture. During the winter months, the farmers attended classes and workshops to learn about designing a crop plan, the organic certification process and business planning, among other components, before even putting their first seed in the ground.
In the spring, each was assigned up to 1-acre plots to start their farm business on a small scale, with all production on Sinsinawa land certified organic through the Midwest Organic Services Association.
Conley and her husband have been looking for land for the past four years to start their own farm. Unfortunately, they’ve run into hurdles securing loans as they have no farm management experience. The collaborative farm program has given them the ability to gain that experience — and more.
“We learned a lot about being a small-scale vegetable farmer that first year,” she said. “Just what it takes, the joys and difficulties of raising produce.”
The Conleys have full-time jobs away from the collaborative farm, like the majority of other farmers at Sinsinawa, spending “every other minute” that they had at the farm. It can get emotional, she said, leading Conley to make it a goal for 2019 to work toward a better work-life balance. The couple will also continue to modify their business plan in 2019 and study the margins on their produce.
“We know we’re bound for a farm,” Conley said. “We just need to find some land.”
The program has helped them connect with representatives at Compeer Financial and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, who have been working to find landowners or retiring farmers interested in selling or leasing their land to the Conleys. That, too, has been a struggle — one of many beginning farmers can face.
“We’re the only ones with kids at the collaborative farm so we have our own challenges too,” Conley said. “But (farming) is what we grew up with and it’s the life we want our kids to grow up with.”
After that first year, the Conleys again joined six farmers, most of them returning from the first growing season like them, to be part of the collaborative farm in 2018. And next year, five farmers have indicated they will return to the Sinsinawa Collaborative Farm, plus one new beginning farmer, Tomy said. The farm will also include a beekeeping operation in 2019, run by a local person who heard about the farm through their website.
“Word is getting out,” Tomy said. “Farmers have been the best source of outreach.”
The sisters have always envisioned their collaborative farm to include a small class of beginning farmers so a community can be created around the program, allowing those farmers to share their successes, as well as their struggles, and to learn from each other.
“We view that ultimately as important as the other pieces,” Tomy said.
“We want to do this really well,” she added. “We want to make it a solid program for farmers and have it grow in a smart way instead of growing exponentially.”
The sisters also envisioned their collaborative farm as a place where farmers can learn without a looming end date, so they strayed away from calling it an “incubator.” For the first year, farmers are allowed to use the land and infrastructure for no charge, with the understanding that they help around the farm that first year; the years that follow include more of a graduated fee structure to participate, Tomy said.
Along with supporting farmers and encouraging them to be good stewards of the land, the Dominican sisters also aim to influence the local food system, connecting farmers in the program with resources and sharing their concerns about food justice and food access in their area. One farm business is particularly passionate about this, Tomy said, recently securing a grant for those in the Dubuque area to pay for their CSA share on a sliding scale to make it more affordable and accessible for consumers at all income levels.
In the future, the sisters would like to expand into perennial agriculture and rotational grazing, likely starting small with chickens or sheep.
And although the farmers are certainly learning a lot about farming, Tomy has learned just as much about the realities beginning farmers face. She’s learned that farmers wear many hats, caring for crops and animals, being a salesperson, a financial adviser, an entrepreneur, a scientist and someone with a friendly face and attitude.
“I’m also learning how difficult but important it is to balance the needs of the farm with the health of the soil and the land,” she said. “Thinking about the way we’ve farmed for the past 50 years and the way agriculture has developed, there is a challenge to make that balance.”
Applications for the 2019 growing season are now closed for the Sinsinawa Collaborative Farm, but more information, including the application and criteria, can be found at www.sinsinawa.org/ about-us/sinsinawa_mound/collaborative-farm.html. Those interested in learning more can also contact Tomy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-748-4411, ext. 346.
The freshly signed farm bill, dubbed the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, contains several provisions that should prove popular with dairy producers, ending an otherwise disappointing year for the industry on a positive note.
“We got everything we were asking for, and maybe a little more,” said NMPF Board Chairman and Missouri dairy farmer Randy Mooney. “It’s a better deal for dairy farmers. I think we came out in a very good spot.”
President Donald Trump signed off on the new, 800-page farm bill Dec. 20. That day, the National Milk Producers Federation hosted a news conference to tout key features of the measure’s dairy provisions, re-branded as the Dairy Margin Coverage program. The organization promises to work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the program changes as quickly as possible. New rates and coverage will take effect Jan. 1. Once producers sign up, their coverage will be retroactive to the beginning of 2018.
The new DMC offers higher coverage levels, lower premiums and more flexibility for farms of all sizes. With the changes, farmers will have some decisions to make this winter ahead of program signup in the spring. Chris Galen, NMPF’s senior vice president for member services and strategic initiatives, encourages producers to learn all they can before then.
“Get educated as much as possible about the program because there are going to be more decisions, or more nuanced decisions, that have to be made,” he said. “These are significant improvements in the dairy safety net” that will help dairy farms of all sizes and nationwide.
Mooney said his organization began calling for reform of dairy’s Margin Protection Program soon after signing of the 2014 Farm Bill, as the program calculations didn’t function as well as intended.
“Our safety net had more holes in it than we thought it did,” Mooney said.
Their call took on greater urgency in light of low milk prices and compressed margins at the farm level the past four years.
“That reality was central in the minds of members of Congress as they looked at this farm bill,” said NMPF President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Mulhern.
Mulhern said they sought reform that would not generate excess milk production, as milk prices must be set in the marketplace, while providing a safety net to support farmers during tough spells.
“We think that these changes will do that,” he said.
None of the previous several farm bills on which he has worked have been as satisfying as this one as far as Congress being responsive to the problems in the dairy industry, he said. “This bill delivers results, and that’s very important for dairy programs going forward. ... It was a truly bipartisan effort.”
Some improvements for dairy were made earlier this year with the federal budget act, which increased the dairy baseline by $800 million. As a result, the USDA issued some $260 million, or an average of about 44 cents per hundredweight, in payments to farmers this past year.
“That’s the way an insurance program should work,” Mooney said. “It’s a voluntary program; you have to pay into it to benefit from it. That won’t change going forward.”
These latest adjustments should make the program even better, presenters said. If milk prices in 2019 are like they were in 2018, that 44 cents per hundredweight paid for a farmer’s first 5 million pounds of milk (equivalent to a herd of about 220 cows) would be $1.70 per hundredweight. While 2019 milk prices are expected to be better than this past year, Mulhern said, these changes will make the program much more effective for the future.
Also remaining unchanged is that the new program maintains existing production history calculators from the 2014 Farm Bill.
Some things that will change include a slashing of premiums on certain coverage levels for larger producers and mechanisms for farmers to reap discounts on future premiums and refunds for past premiums. Restrictions in the previous farm bill on covering milk production in both the DMC and other risk management efforts such as the Livestock Gross Margin program and American Farm Bureau’s Dairy Revenue Protection program are lifted.
Farmers can cover up to 95 percent of their production history — an increase from 90 percent maximum under the MPP. This should especially benefit small- to mid-sized farms, according to Galen. The DMC reduces the current 25 percent minimum annual milk production coverage requirement to 5 percent.
All dairy producers can insure the margins on their first 5 million pounds of milk production history at newly raised levels of $8.50, $9 or $9.50 per cwt. Producers who select Tier 1 margin coverage above $8 and have a production history above 5 million pounds can select any coverage level for their Tier II production (more than 5 million pounds of milk) history. At more than 5 million pounds, $8 is the threshold.
If they lock in coverage for the entirety of the farm bill (calendar years 2019-23), farmers can get a 25 percent premium discount. They also can get a 75 percent credit of net MPP premiums paid in 2014-17 that can be applied toward future DMC payments, making rates even more affordable, Galen said.
“There was a bad taste in the mouths of farmers who paid in in 2014-17. They didn’t see much in the way of payouts,” Galen said. “Farmers who don’t want to use that credit can get 50 percent of their net premiums as a direct refund.”
Dairy provisions in the new farm bill also change the Class I mover pricing formula for skim milk in federal milk marketing orders from the previous higher of the Class III or Class IV skim milk price to the average of Class III or Class IV, plus 74 cents per hundredweight. Galen said this will be a net benefit to both farmers and processors and give fluid processors and other milk marketers a better means for hedging Class I milk using the dairy futures market.
Peter Vitaliano, NMPF’s Vice President of Economic Policy and Market Research, outlined decisions farmers should make early next year, beginning with whether or not to participate in the new DMC in 2019. They also should decide whether or not they want to participate for the full 5 years of the farm bill with Tier I production and, if appropriate Tier II production. Producers who participated in the MPP in 2014-17 must determine if they want to take the credit toward future DMC premiums or cash it out.
For producers who cover Tier I milk, which is all who sign up, Vitaliano said, signing up next year for $9.50 coverage should warrant very serious consideration, given the state of current milk futures.
The demand for grass-fed dairy products continues to grow in the U.S., a highlight in a somewhat stagnant organic market, according to University of Vermont Extension Agronomist Heather Darby. During a recent eOrganic webinar, she discussed some of the challenges facing grass-fed dairy farmers.
“When we say 100 percent grass-fed organic milk, there isn’t actually a defined definition. For our purposes, grass-fed milk comes from dairy animals fed a diet without grain. The ration is instead a mixture of different types of forages,” she said.
There has been a rise in the number of grass-fed organic dairy farms, from about 140 in 2016 to about 400 in 2018. Darby said each farm manages its system in different ways, ranging in how many days they milk to focusing on production.
“It is a rapidly growing sector of the organic milk market, and what we have been trying to do through our research is understand what the common challenges are among these farms,” she said.
One challenge they have found is the farm’s ability to meet forage quantity and quality demands. Transitioning to a 100 percent organic grass-fed system requires more acreage per animal or the ability of the farm to purchase more forages once grain is eliminated.
“In the organic standards, the minimum grazing season length is only 120 days, but in the grass-fed standards, it is at a minimum of 150 days,” said consultant Sarah Flack. “The pasture intake requirement — the average amount of dry matter coming from pasture during the grazing season — needs to be no lower than 60 percent.”
Flack said most farms they have looked at are far exceeding the minimum requirements but are still finding that a challenge as they enter the industry. The research Flack, Darby and their colleagues are working on, with the help from grants and companies like Organic Valley, has found that farms not buying or selling forages need about 5.5 acres per cow. This can lead to other challenges during tough weather years.
“One of the things we are really noticing is that farmers that have eliminated grain have further eliminated a tool that many have when the weather doesn’t cooperate and the forage produced is of very low quality or if we have a drought and the pasture production is really low. We are really working with farmers to overcome this,” Darby said.
One solution farmers have found is enhancing their pasture and harvest management and turning to the genetics of their herd to make sure they have animals that can be successful on these systems. They are also looking at what are the best forages to incorporate in the pasture that pack a nutritional punch for the grazing cows.
Another challenge facing 100 percent grass-fed herds is meeting those nutritional requirements for minerals and energy.
“There is no grain allowed and there is also a detail in the standard that we can’t have any grain byproducts in things like the mineral supplements. That means that an organic dairy farm needs to have their organically approved mineral supplement re-reviewed by their grass-fed certifier to ensure it also meets grass-fed standards,” Flack said.
Supplements like molasses are still allowed, but there are some quantity limits. Flack said most farms are feeding minerals and energy supplements on an “as needed” basis to help them meet their production goals. An increasing number of nutritionists are learning how to manage the nutrient needs of these herds.
Darby said farmers who transition to 100 percent organic grass-fed dairy systems also should pay attention to their soil.
“Managing depleting soils is a challenge many farmers are trying to overcome or, if they are just transitioning, trying to avoid. When you are exporting more nutrients (from the soil) in the form of milk than you are importing in the form of grain or fertilizer, you will end up likely depleting your soils,” she said. Going forward, the group plans for their research to dig deeper into ways to replenish the soil’s nutrients in these grass-fed systems.
“A farmer may say they can’t afford soil amendments, but it is also important, so you can’t really afford not to either. It is important to look at the return on investment from adding fertility and managing soil nutrients,” Darby said. “Organic Valley does offer a dollar per hundredweight to purchase soil amendments for grass milk farms because this is an issue they are trying to help farmers overcome.”
As the industry continues to grow, both Flack and Darby said they hope the research will continue to evolve and they will be better able to help these farmers as they transition into or maintain a 100 percent organic grass-fed dairy system.
“What is really clear to us is that people want to share information and want to participate. We have noticed that this is a relatively new system and we want to, from both research and technical support, be able to support farmers in different production systems,” Darby said.
NEWTON — Grotegut Dairy Farm continues to embrace its newfound role as a representative of Wisconsin’s agricultural industry.
Since the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center opened in Manitowoc County five months ago, thousands of people have toured the nearby operation as part of the center’s admission.
Tour buses board at the center and visit the farm four times daily, following a designated route that includes a trip through the free-stall barn, where the herd of Holsteins curiously observes the group of equally curious people. For many visitors, it’s their first experience on a dairy farm.
“We’re just trying to do our part to help educate the general public on farming and show them what we are all about,” said Doug Grotegut, a third-generation farmer. “So far everything seems to be going pretty well. We’ve heard good things and we’re glad to have people coming.”
Guests watch an on-bus video, narrated by Grotegut family members, that aligns with their location on the farm during the tour. The family’s primary operators are Doug and his brother, Dave, as well as Dave’s children, Ashley and Eric, and Doug’s son, Kip. The farm employs 20 full- and part-time milking technicians and another 30 employees.
Visitors, including more than 1,500 students in school groups, learn additional facts and figures regarding the farm and Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Among them: Grotegut Dairy Farm produces enough milk each year to make 7 million pounds of cheese; about 90 percent of Wisconsin milk is made into cheese; and the average American annually consumes more than 35 pounds of cheese, 20 pounds of ice cream and 5.6 pounds of butter.
Doug said the tour shows “how a Wisconsin dairy farm operates and how we work to provide you with the healthy, delicious dairy products Wisconsin is known for.”
Added Doug’s niece, Ashley: “The dairy men and women of Grotegut Dairy Farm are committed to producing high-quality milk, and that begins with taking good care of our cows. A healthy, comfortable, content cow gives a lot of milk.”
Doug and Dave’s grandparents farmed nearby for many years. Their parents, Ival and Dorothy Grotegut, began farming the current property in 1965 with 51 cows.
The size and scope of the operation increased exponentially over the years.
Today, the farm’s herd of 2,700 milking cows is composed primarily of black and white Holsteins, with a handful of red and white Holsteins and crossbreeds mixed in. The Groteguts also have 2,400 heifers. Cows are milked three times daily on the 80-stall Dairymaster rotary parlor, which was installed in 2011.
The cross-ventilation, free-stall barn stands 250 feet wide and stretches 1,480 feet long. Overall, the family operates about 3,000 owned and rented acres of land.
Doug said Grotegut Dairy Farm and many other like it throughout Wisconsin are committed to sustainable agriculture. He noted the first of two anaerobic digesters on the property was installed in 2008. In addition, the farm regularly recycles plastic, he said, pointing out that 20 million pounds of agricultural plastic was recycled by Wisconsin farmers in 2017.
“Farmers are definitely dedicated to protecting our natural resources, and recycling agricultural plastic is one example of that,” Doug said.
Grotegut Dairy Farm also is instrumental to the experience back at the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center facility. The farm averages about 12 births per day, some of which occur live at the center’s Land O’Lakes Birthing Barn for visitors to watch.
About 150 calves from Grotegut Dairy Farm have been born at Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center. The 100th arrived on Halloween and was affectionately named Boo.
“It all goes back to educating people on our mission,” said Angel Johanek, the center’s director of marketing and development. “We want to educate visitors about Wisconsin agriculture and let them know how farmers produce fiber, fuel and food and how they do it sustainably, humanely and safely.
“We have different ways to do that — the birthing barn, the farm tour, all the exhibits upstairs, the programs. We’re bringing all those pieces together and educating people through those pieces.”
The Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center features 15,000 square feet of interactive, educational exhibits at its $13 million facility. The center, five miles south of Manitowoc at 7001 Gass Lake Road, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
For more information about the center and farm tours, visit www.farm wisconsin.org.