In 1964, John Rieckmann and his wife, Mary, bought a dairy farm from John’s father, on land that had been in the family for three generations.
The son had lived and worked on the farm, about a 20-mile drive west of Appleton, his whole life. So when his father asked him to take over, John felt obligated to do so.
When John farmed under his father, they still used horses for most of the labor.
“We farmed everything the old way,” he said.
As a result, the son had to make necessary — although expensive — upgrades right away, including a complete renovation of the barn.
And that was only the beginning.
As decades passed, John and Mary endured any hardship that came their way, farming their land and raising their cows, investing whatever they could back into the operation.
They raised seven children. Two of their sons, Russell, 55, and Steven, 49, still work on the farm.
For the couple, both 79 years old now, the rural lifestyle they provided their children was exactly what they wanted for their family.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s nowhere else to raise kids other than out in the country,” Mary said. “They learn to respect people, and they learn to respect themselves too.
Inside their home’s small dining room, photos of the family and the farm fill the walls. Out a side door, a short path leads to a picturesque red barn, flanked by smaller red outbuildings.
Their farm was founded in the 19th century, just as a wave of settlers from Europe arrived in Wisconsin and began dairy farming. By 1915, Wisconsin was the top milk producer in the U.S., a title the state held until 1993 when it dropped behind California.
But dairy farming remains central to Wisconsin’s identity — and to John and Mary’s identity.
‘We’ve had hard times, but nothing like this’
John and Mary should be thinking about retirement. Instead, everything they’ve worked toward their entire lives is at risk. The price of milk has plummeted in the last few years, leaving them and many other dairy farmers fighting to survive.
“We’ve had hard times, but nothing like this,” Mary said.
John and Mary are still milking 52 cows, but they are struggling with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, plus monthly expenses they can’t avoid if they want to keep the farm running. They’re barely able to get by, Mary said.
“Stress is the one thing that’s got to be worse than the work,” she said. “It gets to the point where you can’t even sleep at night.”
Many dairy farmers across Wisconsin find themselves in a similar situation, unable to make money at jobs they’ve often spent their lives doing.
In January, the state had 8,110 milk cow herds, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which tracks the number of dairy producer licenses in Wisconsin. That’s 691 fewer than a year earlier.
Sarah Grotjan, a dairy educator with the UW-Extension in Outagamie County, said dairy farmers in northeast Wisconsin face the same challenges as farmers elsewhere in the state.
“We’re in a situation where all commodities are down,” she said. “And they’ve been down for quite a while.”
Most farmers are highly educated and have invested a lot of money to improve their operations, Grotjan said. That has made everything more efficient, leading to more milk production.
But with a massive supply of milk on the market, mixed with uncertainty about exports, prices have suffered.
“We just have a lot of milk and nowhere to go with it,” Grotjan said.
Many farmers have become so overwhelmed they have a difficult time making decisions.
“Right now, it seems like everybody that’s dairy farming should have an exit plan,” she said. “You just don’t know from day to day what’s going to happen.”
As bills pile up, the couple waits for milk prices to rise
John and Mary are hopeful the prices will come up soon. But they acknowledge that at this point, a small increase won’t make much of a difference for them.
The couple doesn’t have a computer, but a friend helped them start a GoFundMe campaign in early January, hoping to raise money to help support their farm. By late February, they had raised $150. Their goal was $50,000.
They’ve watched helplessly as bills have piled up. An unpaid veterinarian bill grows by about $100 every month from the interest. They make their farm payment before anything else, then pick what they can afford to pay next.
They’re careful to stay away from any unnecessary spending. They haven’t gone out to eat in years, Mary said. Some expenses, though, simply can’t be avoided.
“The cows have to have their feed,” John said. “They need to be fed.”
Hopefully, John said, his sons will be able to take over someday — if John and Mary are able to keep the farm going.
“I’m going to try and make it, I guess,” John said. “I don’t know what else to do.”