2009 was a make or break year for dairy farmers in Wisconsin. Milk prices dropped so low that most farmers had to go deeper into debt just to survive. Some lost so much money they had to sell their farms. Today, we begin a series profiling two dairy farming families in Wisconsin. Both managed to weather the worst year they can remember, and hope to stay in the business they love as long as they can.
Our story starts in rural Washington County, along Highway 83, south of Allenton. Here, you’ll find the Goeller family and their 500 dairy cows.
“The farm has been here since 1879. It started with my husband’s great-uncle, and then his great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father and now us.”
Ellen Goeller grew up in Shawano, and had nothing to do with farming before she met her husband Greg. At first, they milked just 63 cows, and over the years, the operation got bigger and bigger. Ellen – her long, silver hair pulled back into a ponytail – takes me inside the family’s huge, free stall, wood-framed barn.
“There are a variety of different ages. At one end, we have newborn calves and then these groups get progressively older,” Ellen says.
Hundreds of black and white Holsteins are munching on piles of feed, or lounging in their concrete pens. The Goellers have a few hired hands to feed the cows and help with the three daily milkings at 5 a.m., noon and 7:30. The Goeller kids are also paid employees.
Seventeen-year-old Garrett sometimes picks up the Friday night milking shift, and does a lot of cleaning in the barns.
“When I was younger I’d help, but now I kind of do more of it just by myself. And like this morning, I went out by myself and handled everything,” Garrett says.
Garrett and his sister, 15-year-old Julia, also take care of the calves, making sure they’re warm and that they’re eating enough. Julia says she’s been helping to fatten up the calves ever since she could walk.
“My nana always tells me that one time when she was here, I said something like, ‘The desperate, desperate calves!’ Yes, I had to go feed the desperate calves,” Julia says.
The Goellers say they don’t mind the hard work of farming. They love the animals and working outdoors, even on those dark mornings in the dead of winter.
Here’s Greg, the fifth generation Goeller to run the family farm.
“There’s cows that, I can get in by some of these and get on their backs and ride them a little bit, just play around with them. So I enjoy being in these pens with these animals, being out in the fields. You can’t explain it. Either you know this, or you don’t,” Greg says.
The Goellers say farming is in their hearts, but with that love, comes anxiety and uncertainty. Farmers don’t know from year to year how much money they’ll make, or how much they’ll lose. That volatility has only gotten worse during the recession. Feed prices have gone up, and at the same time, there’s been a worldwide decline in demand for dairy products.
I asked Greg if he ever considered leaving the business last year, when he was bleeding money.
“I would lie to you if I tell you no,” Greg says.
He says 2009 was the worst year he’s ever seen. The price of milk dropped $5 below the cost of producing it last year, and Greg says his income was down 36 percent. But he just couldn’t give up.
“It’s what you love. I mean, do you give up on another relationship, a marriage or anything like that because you go through an argument? No. You step up and you take care of it,” Greg says.
Greg says he knows some people who lost so much money last year they had to shut down and sell their farms. Greg says like most of the others who survived 2009, he had to go back to the bank and borrow more money.
“You get by with what you can and hopefully everybody gives you a little bit of room for breathing, because everybody was in it together,” Greg says.
I asked Greg, what did his family do? Why are they still here, when other farms folded?
“Yeah, I ask myself that, too, at times, because it’s not just one thing. It’s getting everybody, even the hired help, on the same mindset. No waste,” Greg says.
The Goellers say last year, they didn’t buy any new equipment, or upgrade their milking machines as scheduled. Greg also credits his farm’s continued existence to the fact that it’s been so well-managed over the years. He says his father was always trying new things – not being risky – but being open to new farming techniques or technologies that could make his herd healthier and more productive.
Greg says his dad was just a good businessman.
“I remember once a month, my father would lock himself in one room and get all of his papers out and do his bookwork. And he always said, ‘You don’t have to buy something new from every person that stops out on this farm. You can buy something used. You make things work,’” Greg says.
Greg says dairy farming has changed a lot since his dad or grand-dad ran the business, and advancement hasn’t come cheap. The Goellers have a nutritionist come by the farm once a week to make sure the cows’ feed has precisely the right mix of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. And Greg buys bull semen from around the world so his animals have the best breeding, and he uses a computer model to eliminate the weak genetics. The milking operation has also become more sophisticated.
Greg’s wife Ellen shows me the milk house. We’re between milkings, so one of the Goeller’s employees is cleaning equipment, making this little building steamy like a hot shower.
“They come in eight cows at a time on either side and then the milkers actually stand below, so the udders are right at that height,” Ellen says.
So, it still takes an actual person to milk a cow, but they aren’t doing it by hand, per se. They get the animals into position, clean the udders and attach suction devices. Behind the scenes, Greg can observe the process. His computer shows the exact second each cow walks in the milk house, if production varies even a few ounces from one milking to the next, whether the equipment slipped off the udders, and so on.
“It’s not like years ago when you would milk the cows yourself and you would get a gut feeling for the production level. This way here, with more of the hired help, it’s easier to manage,” Greg says.
Greg says most larger dairy farms use these kinds of systems nowadays. In his words, technology doesn’t have a hangover in the morning or ask for double-time on a holiday. Plus, he says an efficient farm is one of your best defenses against nightmarish years like 2009. Milk prices were slowly beginning to recover, but they’ve fallen again, and are still well below the cost of production.
“My father has always said, when, like, living through the Depression and things like that, the farmer was the first one to always go down first and to be able to recover first. Everybody says the economy’s getting better. From our end, I’m guessing it’s not,” Greg says.
Back in the Goeller’s big barn, I ask Ellen about the future, if she and Greg think about retirement.
“My husband will not retire,” Ellen says, laughing.
She says just look at Greg’s father, who, at 81 years old, still putters around the farm a few days a week.
Greg laughs, too, when I ask him the question about retirement.
“Um, when it’s right,” he says.
There were plans for that time. The Goeller’s other son, 26-year-old Greg Jr., was preparing to take over the farm. But a year-and-a-half ago, he got caught in a piece of equipment he was putting away for the winter, and he died.
Still, the farm will likely stay in the family after Greg and Ellen retire. Seventeen-year-old Garrett plans to go to UW-Madison to study agribusiness and dairy management. Ellen says she’s not surprised Garrett wants to run the farm one day.
“Yeah, when the only thing on his Christmas list were ERTL farm toys. It’s been in his blood since he was a little guy, but we’ll see, you know. He’s still young and things change,” Ellen says.
Ellen and Greg say if things do change, and something else grabs Garrett’s attention, that’s OK. They say there are plenty of young people who want to be farmers, but don’t come from farm families, or have enough money to start something on their own. The Goellers say they’d love to be able to give someone like that a leg up in the business, and help ensure Wisconsin’s strong dairy farming legacy continues.