The phone rings most mornings. Sometimes, Mary Rieckmann doesn’t bother answering.
Rieckmann, who runs a dairy farm near Fremont with her husband, John, already knows she can’t afford to pay whichever debt the call is about. A phone conversation won’t change that — and the stress isn’t helping anyone, Mary said.
“It’s not doing me any good and it’s not doing them any good either,” she said.
The phone calls aren’t the real problem, though. In a letter she wrote last month to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Mary described the impact on their years of low milk prices have had on their dairy farm, which has been in her husband’s family for generations.
Mary, 79, and John, 80, are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, but even relatively small debts — a few thousand dollars to pay for hay or repair machinery — seem almost insurmountable.
But they’ve farmed for their entire lives and can’t imagine giving up. When Mary’s father first sat her on a tractor, she was so young her feet couldn’t reach the pedals. John was born in the dining room of the home where the couple still lives.
“I never thought the day would come when our own lives would be so hard and worth so little,” Mary wrote.
The farm sits on a 110-acre piece of land about a 20-mile drive west from Appleton, where they’ve got about 40 cows they’re still milking. John bought the farm from his father, who was also named John, more than 50 years ago.
Mary and John aren’t alone in their struggle or their grief. Wisconsin has been losing an average of two to three dairy farms a day, a result of low milk prices that have forced many farmers to either stop milking cows or leave the farming completely.
And despite their trouble, Mary and John’s dairy farm is still just that — a dairy farm. The cows still need to be milked and fed. Mary wakes up at 6 a.m. every day, makes the short walk to the barn and washes the cows before they’re fed and milked.
Mary has only been working in the barn again for a few months. She had heart surgery about two years ago, which slowed her down and forced her to limit how much work she did. Her knees aren’t in good shape either, which makes the physical labor even more of a challenge.
“I’m still slow,” she said. “I can do pretty much everything, but I’ve got to take my time.”
In March, when USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin first shared Mary and John’s story, a friend of the family had already set up a GoFundMe page — Mary and John don’t have a computer — that has since collected nearly $20,000 in donations.
But the money didn’t last. Instead, it was quickly used to pay the most pressing of their bills. They’ve prioritized the most important expenses: feeding their cows and making sure all of the machinery still works.
“I didn’t want to use it on anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary,” Mary said.
Two of Mary and John’s sons, Russell, 55, and Steven, 50, still work on the farm. Mary worries if they could even get jobs anywhere else if the farm weren’t an option anymore. They’ve never worked anywhere else, Mary said, and the loss of the farm would be emotional for them, too.
“When you’re around animals all your life, it’s pretty hard to change,” she said.
Mary can’t help but worry about John too.
“If we had to give up our home, John wouldn’t last long,” she said. “I know that for a fact.”
John struggled after he was forced to give up milking duties a few years ago. He had a tendency to get dizzy when he bent down, which put him at risk of falling, Mary said. But John still contributes. He drives a tractor, rakes hay and helps feed the cows.
“He has that in him,” she said. “He has to do something.”
At this point, giving up wouldn’t solve their problem. The sale of the farm almost certainly wouldn’t cover its debt and the other bills they would still have to pay, Mary said.
And, when thoughts of selling the farm cross her mind, Mary is still left with a question she struggles to answer.
“What do you do after that? This is our home,” she said.