Q&A with World Dairy Expo Woman of the Year and Barron County Farm Bureau President
Tell us about your family: My husband Bob and I have four sons. They grew up helping in the various aspects of our farm, giving all of them a good work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit. Christian and Zachary are in business together developing promotions and marketing events for their clients. Jacob, the youngest, works for them and Gabriel is a funeral director with O’Connell Family Funeral Homes in Hudson and Baldwin, WI. Christian graduated from UW-Madison and the other three graduated from the University of Minnesota. Last year, we added two wonderful young women to our family when Zachary married Brooke who is a teacher, and a month later Gabriel married Katie who is a beautician.
Tell us about your farm: Bob and I started farming near his home area in Richland Center. Upon the death of my grandfather, my family asked if we would be interested in moving up to my family’s home farm in Barron. We began by purchasing the home 80 acres and renting the rest. Today our farm consists of 1,150 acres, 859 of which are tillable. I live in the same house I lived in when I was about 4-years-old and my dad was a herdsman for my grandpa. Like Grandpa, we especially enjoy the challenge of breeding registered Holsteins. We have hosted several sales over the years as marketing is an important aspect of our business. The last couple were leaning toward phasing out of dairying, but we just enjoy those great Holsteins too much…we’re back to milking almost a full barn again (80 stalls) with a 30,000+ average. In addition to corn, hay, soybeans and canning beans, we not only continued but greatly expanded a shavings business my grandfather had started. We deliver over 1,200 semi loads of bedding to turkey, horse and cattle farms each year and boiler fuel to our local school and hospital.
What on your farm makes you most proud: Honestly, it is our farm help that makes me most proud. Nine of our employees have been with us over 12 years and six of those have been with us over 18 years. Dare I say we have grown old together? Our Indianhead crew feels like family and we’re very proud and appreciative of them. We’ve always said the quality of our life depends on our help – and we’ve been blessed! This is no one-man show!
What is your biggest challenge: Personally, my biggest challenge is the bookkeeping. Like many other farm wives, I seemed to ‘inherit’ it and I often pouted, “This is NOT what I signed up for!” Plus, government rules and regulations just keep increasing. It was maybe around year 30 that I quit my complaining and just decided to try to do my best, there’s no way around it. It unfortunately takes up a great portion of my time.
What made you decide to farm: I can’t help but think some of us are just born with a love of the land. Living next door to my grandpa when he cash cropped, I worked for him and lived on the seat of a tractor. Although I wanted to farm, my dad told me I wasn’t mechanical enough to be successful and that I’d better get a vocation to support myself in case I didn’t find a farmer for my partner! So, my degree is in Elementary Education. Fortunately for me I found that farmer! Bob and I crossed paths when I was Alice in Dairyland. My aunt, Jean Hegna, gets credit for that!
What do you enjoy most about Farm Bureau? I strongly believe in the three main goals that Farm Bureau exists for – to develop future leaders in agriculture, educate our future generations about agriculture and to provide a voice legislatively for those of us actually in the business of agriculture. All three are essential for a healthy future for agriculture. Over the years this organization has earned a reputation of professionalism and excellence, has proven itself to be a credible source on ag issues and is an available avenue for any farmer or agribusinessman to express themselves. I have always been proud to be a member of this organization.
What advice do you have for young farmers: Young farmers would do well to get as much experience as they can before they become financially responsible for their own decisions! They are often anxious to get going and start building their own equity, but I think they would be further ahead in the long run by learning from someone else’s failures, successes or management style. Get away from the family farm. Work for someone else for two-four years and arm yourself with a strong business education.
What has been one of your greatest accomplishments: To raise sons with a strong faith and of strong moral character was, I believe, my most important responsibility in my life. I am very proud and happy of the young men they are and the strong relationships they have with each other. I expect them to be positive influences wherever they find themselves in life. Definitely I was only one part of their upbringing but I am grateful to count it as one of my greatest accomplishments.
What does farming mean to you: As a girl I had a poster hanging in my room. I can still recite it: “Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man.” Daniel Webster. In fact, I used that quote for the first talk I gave in the Alice in Dairyland finals (1977!). Farming used to be my first passion in life…today, my faith and family have bumped it into third position, but it is still a passion of mine. I see farming as an opportunity – an opportunity to be involved in providing a necessity of life, an opportunity to work with our Creator in the miracle of His creation, and a serious responsibility to always maintain a role of stewardship. I just feel so fortunate to be a farmer, but I am pessimistic about our future. While it is exciting to see the influence of agriculture expand, I am saddened to watch it seemingly move away from local ownership, true family ownership. I am a great believer that whenever man has a personal investment in whatever we may be talking about – health care, our utility bills, our natural resources – we are better decision makers, better stewards. Our rural communities are far better off with numerous individual farms supporting numerous suppliers. Agriculture’s role in creating the strong rural communities Wisconsin is especially known for cannot be understated and I am afraid we are headed for irreversible changes as fewer entities own larger tracts of land. Perhaps I am small minded, but I think the social impact of these changes on the community are going to be far more devastating than we are expecting. Bigger is NOT always better.
What are some of your goals for the future? One of our goals is to be able to transition this farm to our next generation, that they too would care for and pass on an appreciation for the land. We would love it if family would want to continue in this great world of agriculture. On a personal side, I used to be quite involved in raising and training dogs. It’s always been my dream to train a dog for search and rescue and help in that way.
What do you want your legacy to be? I am not interested in building a legacy for myself. My legacy would be that I was a person who was not afraid to live her beliefs – that I lived out my faith as God would have wanted me to, serving and helping others reach their potential in whatever way I can, that I have done my part to make this world a better place.
Original version appeared in the August/September 2013 issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.
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