Imagine that your family runs a business, any business. You’ve grown up with your parents as your boss, and they’ve set the expectation that you will work for the business, no questions asked. You don’t necessarily enjoy the work, and you’re eager to move on and explore greater things. After you and your siblings move out of the house, your parents are left to wonder who will continue their legacy. Your siblings aren’t particularly interested in the business, but perhaps you, with the autonomy to turn the business into something that aligns with your life goals, would consider moving back home. This situation is all too common in family business. Today, we’ll be talking about family business through the lens of a dairy farm, turned multi-species, holistically-grazed silvopasture. Jacob Marty of Green Fire Farm, in Monticello, Wisconsin, runs cattle, pigs, laying hens, and sheep through his young silvopasture that was recently row-crop land. He sells directly to a network of health-conscious consumers.
Jacob is the sixth generation to work at Green Fire Farm. The farm recently sold its dairy herd, and Jacob’s father runs a heifer operation on half of the land. Heifers are young dairy cows that have not yet had a calf. Jacob grazes the other half, and is an extremely qualified farm manager. Half of this story is typical. Aging farmers across the northeast run dairy farms that are on the brink of exhaustion. The cost of producing 100 lbs of milk is current 28% higher than the price it commands: farmers across the nation are going out of business. What is so special here is Jacob’s desire to return to the farm. Jacob has a degree in wildlife ecology, and studied abroad in Denmark. He’s had the opportunity to pursue off-farm work, but has chosen to give back to his community. You see, when dairy margins are slim, and milk aggregators maintain buyer power over farmers, the value that is generated when we buy milk at the supermarket is pushed up the supply chain to large, consumer-facing corporations. When the price of a gallon of milk at the grocery store stays the same, but the price paid to farmers drops dramatically, the middlemen capture that value. Dairy Farmers of America, an aggregator, is currently facing a class-action lawsuit for anti-competitive practices and collusion. A system like this shrinks rural livelihoods and destroys communities, but Jacob has returned to his town to create value and bring money back to rural Wisconsin. We are of the opinion that dairy farms need not derive more income from dairy, but instead simply derive more income. If producing grass-fed beef makes more sense than producing commodity milk, this is what farms should explore.
There are hordes of millennials who claim that they wish to farm, but do these young people know what farming entails? Do they wish to be on call on Thanksgiving morning, ready to deal with animals in 33-degree rain? Do they want to be up at 3:00 am in July to harvest lettuce such that it doesn’t taste bitter? Do they understand that they have to be both incredible business people and great land managers to create a livelihood for themselves? Or do these millennials romanticize farming and just want to be outside? If the answer to the last question is “yes,” perhaps outdoor recreation or the National Park Service is a better career path than agriculture. Let us now emphasize why Jacob and his kind are worth paying attention to. He grew up farming, has had time away from the farm, and has returned to agriculture once again. It is people like Jacob that are worth our time, because they understand what it takes to be a farmer. Are there more children of dairy farmers that want to profitably work the land without wading through manure all day? There must be. There must be farm-family millennials that know that they want to return to the farm, and others that given chance to work for themselves, outside, while turning a profit, would jump at the chance. We must share Jacob’s story with these young people: as a society, we can foster a new generation of regenerative agrarians.