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Story Publication logo March 8, 2021

'This Isn't the Way I Wanted It to End': Dairy Farm Shuts Down After 148 Years

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There is no more quintessential image of Wisconsin than a red barn with a herd of cows grazing in a...

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One at a time for six days, the 27 livestock trailers pulled up to the barn at Adams Dairy Farm, as if part of an extended funeral receiving line. 

They came from other parts of Wisconsin, and Iowa and New York, picking up youngstock first, then their share of 600 cattle.

When the last rig eased over to State Highway 93 on Tuesday, dairy farming ceased on this expanse of Trempealeau County land that's been in Paul Adams' family since shortly after the Civil War. 

"It's amazing how long it takes to wind something like this down," he said while watching the farm's last milking session before those cows were sorted and walked up ramps into the trailers. 

Adams Dairy switched to organic milk in 2002, so most of the tractor-trailer rigs were headed to an organic operation east of Dallas with about 2,000 cattle. The last four rigs headed to a slaughterhouse in Omaha, a move Adams said was upsetting but unavoidable because he couldn’t find another buyer for those cows. 

Equipment on the farm, which is about $8 million in debt, is going up for auction and the land will be listed for sale with a real estate firm.

"This isn't the way I wanted it to end, but at least it's a definite stop," Adams said.

At 68 years old, he has been a dairy farmer since he graduated from high school in 1970 and completed the industry's "short course" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Back then, his parents milked 30 cows.

Today, he and his wife JoAnn live in a home they inherited that overlooks the farm but isn't part of it. Their daughter Becky lives in the farmhouse where she grew up. She has worked with her father for 15 years and was poised to take over the business as he neared retirement. She managed the herd and supervised nearly 20 employees.

“Becky has been pretty amazing, watching out for everybody,” Adams said.

Now, she and her two children will lose their home. The plan is to move to Altoona, closer to Eau Claire, and figure the next steps out.

"Everything she had worked for, the equity in the farm, is gone," Adams said. 

There might not be enough revenue from the liquidation to pay off the crushing debts. If that happens, a bankruptcy filing could be in order.

“I'm at the point where I’m not trying to save anything,” Adams said.

Taking the right steps 

The collapse of family dairy farms has been changing the landscape of Wisconsin — literally and figuratively — for years. Wisconsin branded itself America's Dairyland 80 years ago, and family farms are ingrained in the state's identity.

A truck leaves Paul Adams' family farm in Eleva with dairy cattle headed to a Texas mega farm.
A truck leaves Paul Adams' family farm in Eleva with dairy cattle headed to a Texas megafarm. Image by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But many of those operations have been losing money or are barely hanging on. In 2019, about 820 dairy farms shut down in the state, a rate of more than two a day. Low commodities prices, intense competition, declining consumer interest in milk and an oversupplied marketplace have conspired against farmers.

The collapse of Adams Dairy, however, generated some shock waves given it had followed the script for survival.

Through the years, the Adamses grew the size of their herd to take advantage of economies of scale. They also added land; today they own 800 acres and lease 300 more. They found a niche to specialize in, and their Holsteins and Brown Swiss were from award-winning genetics. The family invested in new machinery and kept the farm modern. They did everything by the book and then some.

Becky Adams even traveled to Mexico to better understand where many of her workers came from — the families they left behind, the dreams they had of returning, the challenges they faced so far from home.

"When you see the quality of the barns, the cattle and everything going on here, this was clearly a family farm that was looking to the future," said Danielle Endvick, communications manager for the trade group Wisconsin Farmers Union, as she watched the cows being loaded onto the trailers. 

Even as the milk price improved some this year, more dairy farmers have called it quits, too deep in the hole to benefit.

"It's hard to watch these losses and have a lot of hope," said Endvick, whose family lost its dairy farm years ago. 

“There was no doubt that I would be the next generation running that farm. But I remember my dad telling me point blank, ‘These are the numbers and here's why it's not going to pencil out,’ ” Endvick said.

For a time, outlook was bright

Not long ago, the market for organic milk was growing at a rapid clip. Adams raised cattle feed on land where the nutrients and natural processes were kept in a careful balance. His cows grazed on postcard-perfect hillsides. 

Paul Adams holds a calendar that featured his daughter, Becky, and their dairy herd.
Paul Adams holds a calendar that featured his daughter, Becky, and their dairy herd. Image by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“I saw a beautiful future in organic,” Adams said. “I learned that if you manage the soils right, you’re going to have healthier crops, healthier cows and healthier people.”

For quite a while, the business thrived. The price the farm received for its milk was high enough to cover the additional costs of organic farming — mostly higher feed costs — and assure a nice profit. The milk was shipped to a bottler in New Jersey, and the farm kept growing.

Then, in November 2017, Adams lost his contract with that processor when it found it could get milk cheaper from farms with thousands of cows in Texas. 

He found another milk buyer, in Rochester, Minnesota, but the price kept falling as the organic market became saturated by big farms in the Southwest. At least once at the Rochester plant, he saw tanker trucks with Texas license plates. 

A handful of mega-sized dairies in the Southwest now produce about 25% more certified organic milk than all of Wisconsin’s 450 organic dairies combined, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Critics contend the industrial farms skirt the rules calling for, among other things, at least 120 days of pasture access a year and a significant amount of fresh grass in a cow’s diet.

"It's really hurting the organic label, which is bad because it took many years to get it where it was three or four years ago," said Darin Von Ruden, an organic dairy farmer from Westby and president of Wisconsin Farmers Union. 

“As the industry got bigger, I thought that some of the rules would save us from the competitive downhill rush. But it hit us anyway,” Adams said.

"The system is broken. We can't modify it. There has to be an overhaul," he added.

'We have pretty well lost everything'

Two years ago, Adams put the family farm up for sale. But there were no offers and the farm's outlook worsened as the milk price remained below the cost of production amid a deep industrywide slump.

Junior Fedie, left, consults with Becky Adams as they check off cows that have been milked before being loaded on a truck at Adams Dairy Farm in Eleva. The farm, which is being liquidated, has been in her family for 148 years. Twenty-seven livestock trailers were used to move the cattle to a farm in Texas as well as some to a slaughterhouse in Nebraska.
Junior Fedie, left, consults with Becky Adams as they check off cows that have been milked before being loaded on a truck at Adams Dairy Farm in Eleva. Image by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Adams drained his retirement savings to plant corn for the cattle and keep the business afloat. Then his local bank sold his loans to an out-of-state investment firm that demanded higher monthly payments and he lost another milk contract.

Earlier this year, "it became impossible to continue,” Adams said. “We dragged down our equity to the point where we are now hoping to sell the entire business and come out at net zero."

It bothers him that the industrial dairies have come to control much of the organic milk market by hauling in massive amounts of organic cattle feed from other places and getting around the grazing requirements. Yet he understands the cost pressures; his own farm nearly qualified as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, and the rules that come with that designation.

"I am not really that negative on the organic CAFOs," he said. "I just thought that consumer demand for better milk would stay ahead of the demand for cheaper milk. But it didn't."

Lowering standards was unacceptable

 He might have saved the business by lowering his expenses and standards over the years. But that would have gone against what he believes in, Adams said. 

"I have never been a low-cost producer," he said. "I want to treat my cows right and my people right. I know the quality of the milk we are producing."

Adams says he doesn't know what he's going to do now that he isn't working on the farm seven days a week. 

"One thing I will miss is harvest time ... getting to play with the big toys," he said. 

Herdswoman Becky Adams tears up while talking about her dairy herd.
Herdswoman Becky Adams tears up while talking about her dairy herd. Image by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

At one time, there were four other dairies on a mile stretch of road between his place and Eleva, a small town on the Buffalo River. Now there are none.

Becky Adams, who studied dairy science at UW-Madison, says she may pursue a career in natural health practices for people, not livestock. 

"My original plan was to become a veterinarian and not come back to the farm. But while I was at UW, I realized I wanted to work with the healthy cows on our farm rather than everyone else's sick cows," she said. 

Tears welled up in her eyes while she helped sort and load the cows onto the caravan of trailers leaving the farm for the 16-hour trek to Dallas.

"I will miss the friendly ones, my pets," she said.

Will the 36-year-old dairy farmer who worked 15 years on her parents' farm ever get back into the business? 

"Right now I am pretty emotional," she said. "I don't think so, but time heals wounds. We'll wait and see."

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