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Done with dairy: After 55 years of dairying, Fall Creek farmer exits industry

FALL CREEK — Like 43 other Wisconsin farmers, Norman and Jane Anderson of Sweet Pine Farm in Fall Creek quit the dairy industry in June.

After 55 years of milking cows, it wasn’t an easy decision to make, Norman Anderson said, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t easy to accomplish.

But on June 15, Anderson milked his cows for the final time before loading the herd onto trailers for their journey to new homes.

“It hasn’t hit too hard, because I’ve got too many undone things yet,” he said. “The situation of late is, I’ve got three tractors that went down that all need maintenance.”

The Andersons had been planning their exit from the dairy industry for several months. Norman said milk prices taking a hit at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. was just another factor in their decision.

But because of COVID-19, the path out of dairying wasn’t as straightforward as it otherwise might have been. Not only did dairy prices take a hit at the onset of COVID-19, but cattle prices did as well, and the Andersons didn’t want to part with their herd for less than a fair price.

“Jane’s going to retire, and I thought I’d pull my horns in a little bit after she retired,” Norman said. “And then with COVID, the cattle market took a plunge, so we held back for a couple months.”

Norman had planned to crop more of his farm this summer, but because he pastured his cattle he had to hold off on planting the last 35 acres.

“So my corn didn’t get planted until the day after the cows were gone,” he said.

The Andersons were milking about 30 cows at the end of their dairying. The farm’s tie-stall barn was designed to hold 35 animals. Over the years, Anderson added a pipeline, a pack barn and designed his own single-6 step-up parlor and expanded to milking 60 head.

“I’d do it all over again if I had to,” Norman said. “There are things you wish you wouldn’t have done this or would have done that, but operations like what’s here, there’s not that many more of anymore.

“I hope we see the small dairies continue. It’s kind of a family thing, which is the biggest, most important part of the small dairy industry.”

As of Jan. 1, Wisconsin was home to 7,292 dairy farms. By July 1, the number of dairy herds in the state had dipped to 7,079, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Wisconsin field office.

Wisconsin lost a total of 818 milk cow herds in 2019. The rate of decline had slowed in early 2020, but 45 dairy farmers exited the business in May and 44 followed in June.

After five years of depressed milk prices, a turnaround looked like it was on its way in late 2019 and early this year, but the coronavirus pandemic put an end to that recovery.

The Wisconsin all milk price for May 2020 was $13.60 per hundredweight, according to the June 30 NASS Agricultural Prices report. That was 40 cents lower than last month’s price and $4.60 lower than last May’s price.

June’s prices were projected to rebound, but Norman was worried that wouldn’t last.

“Right now there’s a pie-in-the-sky idea that milk will be better priced, but it’s just going to be for a short time, I’m thinking,” he said.

Sweet Pine Farm has been in the Anderson family since 1885. The original homestead and a neighboring parcel added by Norman’s grandfather in 1936 make up the 240-acre home farm. Another 107 acres to the north of the home farm were added to the farmstead when his grandfather married his grandmother.

Norman, who is about to turn 73, had been milking for 55 years. He took over from his father not long after graduating high school. His milking herd started with the gift of a 4-H animal from his father and five cows he bought while in high school. Norman said his father didn’t want him to feel tied to the family farm, so he attended short course at UW-Madison.

“He gave me the impression I should venture out to do something I wanted to, but I guess I had my mind made up,” he said.

Norman said that due to low milk prices and wanting to get out while he’s got his health, he’s been thinking about leaving the industry for about four years.

“We’d been making plans, but I guess I enjoyed it too much to say, ‘I’m done’,” he said.

“The reality of the situation is, he’s the person would stay positive no matter how bad it got,” said Christine Engler, the couple’s daughter and one of their four children. “He would have hung on to the end, but it just doesn’t look like it’s going to get better.”

Norman said he plans to maintain the dairy barn just in case it can ever be of use again. His son, Wade, has some interest in the farm, and Norman said he’d be willing to mentor a farmer hoping to get into dairying.

“I’ll take care of what we’ve got here, and if there is a good future for someone, they definitely could step in,” he said.

Norman said his leaving the dairying behind comes at a good time, since he and Jane are healthy. He said he’s had a couple close calls with cows over the years, and the couple survived another close call while being trapped in a silo about four years ago.

Norman was trying to clear haylage from a clogged chute when he got trapped in a silo. Jane also got trapped in the chute after going to look for him when he didn’t come in from the barn for dinner.

“He told me not to come out to help him, because I was sewing tree skirts for the kids for Christmas,” she said. “I looked at my watch and said, ‘Oh, shoot, he’s not in for supper.’

“I bundled up and went out looking for him. It’s an eerie feeling when you walk into the barn and there’s no sound in the barn other than the cows bellering.”

Jane was trapped when she tried to clear the chute herself. Luckily, Jane had called 911 before going out to look for Norman, and rescuers were able to find both of them after figuring out which silo they were in.

“I get teased about it a bit,” Norman said. “But at least we can get teased about it.”

The Andersons kept about 25 youngstock from the herd. They have chickens and plan to raise a few beef cattle and to continue to sell beef, eggs and produce from Jane’s five gardens locally.

“She’s got a green thumb,” Norman said. “She’s got all her gardens, so she has plenty to do.”

And while the dairying is done, the farming adventures have continued.

“We woke up this morning to cows all over the yard,” Jane said. “I had to watch to make sure they didn’t head through the garden. That’s always the thing, everything comes up nice and then one of them heads through the garden.”

Rides of passage

Learning to ride a bike is as easy as learning to ride a bike. Which is to say: pretty darn hard. Especially when you’re 6. And my daughter. And learning from a guy like me.

“Come on,” I coach as I steady the back of her bike seat, “you got this! It’s simple physics.”

“Simple what?” Eleanor asks, craning her helmeted head toward me.

“Never mind,” I say. “Eyes ahead!”

This is not our first lap around the block. Or our second. In fact, if my hunched back is any indication, we’re closing in on our own personal Indy 500. Somehow, all my careful instructions (“Don’t tip!”, “Keep pedaling!”, “Remember Newton’s First Law!”) have fallen on deaf ears.

Yet what we lack in bike riding success we make up for with our growing audience. The neighbors delight in our daily drama, which they watch from the comforts of their picture windows. Day after day, our faithful viewers tune-in for such classics as “B.J. Clownishly Rides a Child’s Bicycle”, “B.J. Spills Onto The Sidewalk Following A Failed Wheelie”, and the ever popular “B.J.’s Botched Bike Lessons Lead To Public Meltdown.”

One day, while walking her bicycle home during another less-than-successful lesson, I asked Eleanor, with all humble earnestness “What’s the hard part for you?”

“The hard part is the trying not to fall,” she explained.

I, too, know that fear. Back when I was learning to ride, I had my own regular run-ins with the ground — and the skinned knees to prove it. My most terrifying encounter involved a loose shoelace, a pedal crank arm, and the slow-motion disaster that followed.

From my place atop my seat, I’d watched in horror as the pedal crank arm snagged my loose lace, binding my foot tighter to the bike with every revolution. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, my inglorious toppling was inevitable. As was the bruised ego that accompanied it.

It wasn’t until I observed my daughter’s daily defeat that I began to realize that her own ego was taking a bruising. The cure, I knew, was a healthy dose of confidence boost.

For us, that boost came in the form of our “tagalong bike” — a single-wheeled attachment that affixed to the back of my own bike. I did the balancing and pedaling, she provided the subversive color commentary (“Hey Dad, remember Newton’s First Law!”). Eventually, her confidence was restored; at least enough to get her back in the saddle.

Throughout June, Eleanor crashed her bicycle into every lawn on the block. She knew which neighbors had the springiest grass and aimed her collapses accordingly.

“You’ve got me?” she’d holler as I steadied her seat.

“I’ve got you,” I’d assure.

But then I’d let go. And then she’d eat grass. And then, following several rounds of passing the blame, we’d take it once more from the top.

Always, she’d return to that bike seat with the determination of a rodeo rider. I’d tail her for what seemed like miles, shouting one encouraging slogan after another. When the slogans ran dry, I’d just shout nonsense, anything to assure her I was there.

Following another less-than-successful outing, I asked her what I could do better.

“Well,” she said, treading lightly. “Sometimes you kind of yell.”

“I don’t yell!” I yelled. “What do you mean I yell?”

Her eyes said everything.

For a month, I’d been teaching her to ride a bike without ever considering how she might prefer to learn. She didn’t need a physics lesson, or a seat-steadier, or a slogan machine. What she needed was a dad that let her lead.

And also, it didn’t hurt that I finally lowered her seat to the proper height.

As metaphors for growing up go, the ol’ “teaching-one’s-child-to-ride-a-bike” serves as pretty low-hanging fruit. You’ve got your hardships, your setbacks, and eventually, your moment of triumph. And that’s precisely how our story played out.

Only in our version, that triumph took a little longer than expected, and the lesson had less to do with her than me. I like to think I’ll get it right the next time around. That when Eleanor’s little sister places her feet to the pedals, I’ll listen a little louder, talk a little quieter, and trust my budding biker to find her own path forward.

Just as Ellie does one sweltering July afternoon.

“Did you let go?” she shouts from half a block ahead of me.

“I let go!” I confirm.

And then she is off, lurching down the sidewalk with the speed of a poorly thrown bowling ball.

I give chase, and as I pass my neighbors’ picture windows, I see them silently cheering us on. Arms raised, fists pumping, this is the season finale they’ve been waiting for.

But for me, it feels less like a season finale than the beginning of an entirely new show. One which remains unwritten. And one with plenty more drama to come.

Ellie pedals faster, harder, leaving me in her dust.

I lengthen my stride, I pick up my pace, sprinting toward that speck on the horizon.

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Eau Claire, Dunn county fairs going exhibitor-only for 2020
  • Updated

For the general public, it may appear as though the Eau Claire and Dunn county fairs this year are yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for 4-H, FFA and other youth exhibitors, all is not lost.

While fair operations are being significantly modified in both counties, Eau Claire and Dunn county youth will still get the chance to display the projects they’ve been working on likely since last fair season.

These fairs will again give 4-H’ers and other youth the opportunity to work on the four elements of positive youth development — generosity, mastery, independence and belonging — and provide them with deadlines some might need to make progress on their projects, said Rachel Hart-Brinson, 4-H program educator for Eau Claire County.

“In addition, we know how important recognition can be in motivating people to continue working on life skills,” Hart-Brinson said. “The fair provides a wonderful venue for the recognition of the work youth put into projects, as well as an opportunity to receive feedback that will improve the project the next time around.”

With many fairs and other events, including some livestock shows, canceled, having a fair at all was “important for kids to have something to look forward to,” said Debbie Kitchen, Eau Claire County Fair coordinator.

For both fairs, only exhibitors and their immediate families within the same household will be permitted to be on the fairgrounds and in the buildings.

The exception to that rule for the Eau Claire County Fair will be during the livestock auction, scheduled for Aug. 1, which will be open to potential bidders and buyers who sign a waiver and are issued a wristband, Kitchen said.

Dunn County Fair auctions are canceled, however, with exhibitors being giving options including marketing and selling privately or keeping the animal for their family, according to guidelines.

As of July 8, 57 of 75 state-aided Wisconsin state, county and district fairs had canceled, postponed or modified their fair seasons amid the pandemic, according to the Wisconsin Association of Fairs website. The majority of that list is described as canceled.

For those moving forward in a modified fashion, there isn’t a set formula to abide by, with each fair determining which aspects of their fair to go ahead with.

But the Eau Claire County Fair, this year scheduled for July 27-Aug. 2, already differs from many fairs that feature carnivals and grandstand entertainment in that the Eau Claire County Fair is already strictly exhibitor and youth only, albeit open to public viewing in a normal year, said Kitchen.

Closing the fair to the public will indeed still be a change, but “health and safety is our priority,” Kitchen said.

While some have expressed discomfort with being at the fair this year and the fair is respecting the decision of any who decide to opt out, they have also received some “very positive comments that we are moving forward,” Kitchen said.

The changes to the Dunn County Fair, which does typically feature a carnival, grandstand entertainment, food trucks and more, may seem a little more stark, but going exhibitor-only was the maximum allowed under a resolution passed by the Dunn County Board of Supervisors in late May, which ordered the fair to “consist only of 4-H and other youth-group activities that can be conducted remotely.”

The resolution further stated that “no activity associated with the County Fair shall be open to the general public.”

The fair, scheduled for July 22-26, agreed to comply with the order and recommendations from the Dunn County Department of Public Health.

In a statement after the resolution was passed, Deb Gotlibson, president of the Dunn County Fair Board said, “Our hearts are heavy knowing we cannot gather for our annual celebration as we have during the past 134 years, but now and always, the health and safety of our guests, participants and community is our highest priority.”

Those still allowed on the Dunn and Eau Claire county fairgrounds will be required to abide by a series of published guidelines each fair is implementing based on health department recommendations and mandates.

Both fairs will be requiring widespread mask usage, and only those issued wristbands will be allowed to enter the fairgrounds. Both fairs’ guidelines instruct exhibitors and their families to leave the grounds when they are not exhibiting.

Face-to-face judging will be limited or eliminated entirely, and exhibitors were required to register their entries through an online platform this year.

Both fairs have complete sets of guidelines on their websites and Facebook pages. Additional updates or changes will be posted in those locations as well.

Much of the Eau Claire County Fair will be livestreamed or otherwise posted on Facebook, Kitchens said. They are also looking at doing a Facebook auction with the items they have for a silent auction and are moving forward with the Friends of the Fair raffle.

“All in all, we’re trying to do the best we can,” Kitchen said.

Both fairs hope to be back in full-swing in 2021.

“We look forward to brighter, better days ahead when we can gather again to celebrate all that is exceptional about Dunn County,” Gotlibson said in a statement. “Until then, stay safe, be well and support each other.”

For updates on Wisconsin county and district fairs, visit https://www.wifairs.com/p/getconnected/covid-19-update.