He credits his father with instilling a value that land is a precious resource. It was his dad who built the farm’s first retention dam, added grass waterways and stressed not over-spreading manure where it was most convenient.
Jack remembers picking rocks every spring as a child and watching his dad plow the hilly contoured fields just south of Cashton. He farms the same contours today, but a switch to no-till farming practices helps keep topsoil on the fields and rocks in the ground.
At one point, Jack had transitioned to chisel plowing which left more residue on the fields, but erosion was still evident.
“I made up my mind I was going to be a no-till farmer. It’s like a marriage,” he explained. “I’m gonna make this work. I’m not going to give up on it.”
“It’s less effort and it leaves the rocks in the ground. It reduced erosion substantially,” said Jack, who takes every opportunity to talk about it to other farmers. Workshops have been held on the Herricks farm, where he’s showed others how to adjust a planter for no-till.
“I take every opportunity I can to talk to farmers about no-till,” he said. “I tell them it saves on soil, toil and oil.”
Herricks’ farm was an active participant in the Jersey Valley Watershed Project and was a research site for the University of Wisconsin’s Discovery Farms project. The research gave credibility to Herricks’ efforts to keep nutrients on the soil. Two decades of conservation efforts in the area have revived the nearby Brush Creek to a Class 3 trout stream.
Years ago, Herricks says it was common for every square foot of land not cropped to be fenced off and grazed. After he abandoned that practice, there was regrowth of young trees. He began planting cover crops that could be used to feed heifers, while keeping soils intact.
It’s for this type of land ethic that Jack and his wife, Pat, and their family received the prestigious 2014 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award. Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, it recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation.
Finding his true calling
“I was privileged to know early on what I wanted to do,” Jack says. “I’ve never had a job interview.”
While Jack always wanted to be a farmer, he says it was an unforeseen turn of events that brought him home to the farm.
He gave thought to becoming a priest between the ages of 14 and 18 while attending the Holy Cross Seminary in La Crosse, but that was not his calling.
Jack wanted to be a dairy farmer, but as the second oldest of 12 children, he wasn’t sure if that was a realistic option. With hopes of always working around cows, he planned to become a veterinarian instead. In 1971, following a year at Loras College in Iowa, he was set to transfer to UW-River Falls, where his older brother was also studying.
Tragedy befell his family when his father was killed in a tractor accident. Jack, 19 at the time, quit his summer job and came home to help on the farm. He and his older brother realized the farm was not big enough to support both of them.
“I spoke up right away, well I’d like to farm,” Jack told his mother and older brother.
His older brother wanted to continue his education to become a teacher. So it was settled.
“It was not just stepping into a farmer role. There were a lot of mouths to feed around here. I also helped mom raise children, including my youngest brother who was just six months old at the time,” he said. “He was more like a son than a brother because of his age. He grew up here and worked on the farm before settling into his own career. It was a great thing for both of us.”
Jack met his future wife in 1971 as well. Pat was a senior at Cashton High School, who attended a cattle judging field trip at the Herricks farm.
One of 13 children, Pat was a farm girl from nearby Portland, who always said she wouldn’t marry a farmer.
“I thought maybe she was interested in farming since she was out here judging cattle,” Jack said with a laugh.
Jack asked his brother about her. The couple married in 1973. During those first lean years, he said they worked for 10 percent of the milk check. They raised a labor-intensive, but lucrative acre of tobacco for a few years.
The Herricks have three children (Angie, Nathan and Daniel) and seven grandchildren. Nathan is a financial consultant in North Carolina. Angie and Daniel both did stints in college before realizing they wanted to be on the farm.
2012 marked a century of farm ownership by the Herricks. Today their farm consists of 1,010 acres (250 of it is wooded). All crops are grown to feed their herd of 600 dairy cows.
“Dad liked raising crops, but he emphasized the cows are where we make money,” he said. “We have to take care of the cows first.”
The herd consists of Holsteins crossbred with Jersey and Brown Swiss. Their milk is shipped to Foremost Farms.
In 1996 a transition was made from a traditional stall barn to a free stall barn and parlor. The Herricks’ home, barns and sheds are neatly tucked in a scenic valley. Heifers and dry cows are kept at rented facilities on other farms.
Sand is used for bedding in the freestall barn. Jack says the mix of sand in the manure “helps mellow out the heavy clay soil.”
In 1981 he transitioned from hauling manure every day to utilizing short-term manure storage. Now they spread manure about every 10 days. One manure pit stores about two months of waste from the parlor. Another pit can hold two weeks’ worth of manure from the free stall barn.
“People can get by without a car, a watch, maybe even electricity, but not food,” Jack said. “I feel so privileged to be part of this little group of people that can produce food.”
“When I came home to farm I had a suitcase of clothes and 10 dollars,” he recalls. “All I had was a desire to succeed with 34 cows and 120 acres. Today I still think we’re a little family farm. It almost overwhelms me to think how we grew from where we started. It doesn’t seem possible.”
“Early on I thought I was doing this for myself. Somewhere I came to know this isn’t my land. It’s God’s land. I’m his caretaker. I felt a great sense of responsibility to care for these resources,” he said. “This farm has nurtured our family for a century. It behooves us to make sure it can take care of future generations by producing food on this land.”
Story by Casey Langan. Original version appeared in the December/January issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.