Joseph Haberli doesn’t recall a time when he wanted to do anything but farm.
There was no moment of inspiration, no time when he fell in love with the land. Farming, he says, was just always in him. His dad bought a farm four miles southeast of Egg Harbor on Memorial Drive, one of central Door County’s less-traveled back roads, in 1948.
By the time Joseph came through on his pledge to buy the farm in 1962 it included 200 acres, four heifers, 18 milking cows, two calves and two yearlings. It came with one big barn and a couple of sheds. He paid $30,000 for it, using a Federal Housing Administration farm loan for half and his father’s financing for the other half.
“I didn’t have a dollar in my wallet to pay a light bill,” he says. “But I never complained because I liked to farm.”
Now 74, Joseph still works at the farm, but his daughter Lori has taken over the bookkeeping and two of his four sons run the farm. Joe Jr. handles cash cropping and Mark handles the dairy. On a sun-swept April afternoon I met them in the milk house to talk about life on a family farm, handling change, and creating a future from a fading way of life.
The growth imperative
In 1992 Wisconsin claimed 31,286 licensed dairy farms, with an average of 52 cows per farm. Today there are barely a third as many farms, with the state’s 12,710 dairy farms now home to an average of 99 cows.
Dr. Robert Cropp, agricultural economist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, says the shift to larger farms will continue. In fact, the most vulnerable farms aren’t those with the smallest herds, but those in the middle, with 50 to 99 cows.
“At that size, if they’re going to stay in business, they’re going to have to modernize and fix up their barns, and if you’re going to do that you need to have 200 or 300 cows,” Cropp says.
That’s just what the Haberlis discovered. Joseph and his late wife Mary Lou knew that as their seven children reached adulthood and had families of their own, the farm would have to grow to support them all. Just 10 years ago the farm had 120 milk cows. Today, the Haberlis have 250 milk cows and plan to grow larger.
“You had to get bigger to support the kids, and then you had to hope that they wanted to take over the farm,” Joseph says. “You had to keep it up-to-date, modern, and make it a good environment.”
To do that he reinvested any money they made into the farm, building new barns, buying new tractors and equipment, and diversifying.
“A lot of times we went without stuff in the house because I stuck it back into the farm,” Joseph says. “Instead of a trip, it went into the farm. Some farmers went big in 10 years, it took me 50.”
The present 425-acre Haberli Farm dwarfs the one Joseph bought 50 years ago. Modern silos tower over the barn, the shed housing some of the 60-plus tractors, trucks and implements, and the three trailer homes to the south of the barn that house six full-time and six part-time employees. The cash cropping division is based across the road, working 5,100 acres, most of it leased from some 55 separate landowners.
But Joseph said growing the farm isn’t all about upgrades and investments, but attitude. Lori, who arrives each morning at 5:30 am to do the books before heading to her other job at Hide Side Corner Store in Fish Creek, says her Dad was always positive about farming.
“He loves it, it’s all he’s ever done,” she says. “He wouldn’t talk it down, and though we worked hard, we played hard too. We had fun.”
Lori loves the work. She says she enjoys picking rocks, but also tracking the numbers. “There’s so much more mind work in farming than people realize,” she says.
Another farmer recently told Mark he had decided to sell because he didn’t want his kids to “be no dumb farmer.” Mark looked around at the man’s farm, his new four wheeler, skid steer, brand new tractor, and a sparkling pickup truck.
“I’m thinking, ‘yeah, you got it pretty rough don’t you?’” Mark says. Moments later, however, Mark admits to losing that perspective from time to time himself. He says there are days when he feels he isn’t getting anywhere on the farm.
“That’s a constant battle to not get so involved in the hustle and bustle of the business that you lose track of what’s so good about this,” he says. “You have to stop yourself once in a while.”
When he does that he sees modern tractors that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, technology his grandfather never imagined, and computers he hopes his daughter will master before he has to.
“I look around and realize that all of this is ours. This is my choice. Even if we ain’t the richest people in the world, we’re happy. I’ve got all this equipment. I’ve got all these animals. And I’ve got my family here with me,” Mark says. “It’s a way of life, and it’s a good way of life.”
The next generation
Mark and his siblings worked long, tough days as kids, but it instilled a strong work ethic that serves them today. But when it comes to putting his own kids to work on the farm he tries to strike a better balance.
“I’m not trying to work them like my brothers and I had to, but I want to instill that work ethic,” he says over the low hum of the milking machine, a dip of chewing tobacco snug in the right side of his lower lip. “It’s hard. My goal is to make it enjoyable so the kids want to stay with it.”
His oldest child, 10-year-old Miah, trails him around the farm throughout the afternoon, feeding cows, keeping an eye on her precocious two-year-old sister Ruby, and taking every opportunity to steal a moment with the animals. “I love them,” she says of the cows. “I don’t know what I would do without them.”
The farm has 250 milking cows and an additional 270 calves, heifers, and steers. Miah hasn’t named them all, but she’s close. Still, Mark and his wife Kathy, who takes care of the calves, don’t take it for granted that Miah (or her tractor-loving, eight-year-old brother Kody) will always be so enamored with the farming life.
“We do think she’ll want to do it,” Kathy says. “But things change.”
And what if they do?
“I don’t want to think about it,” Mark says, shaking his head with a look of disbelief on his face. The look is enough to make Kathy chuckle, because they know the farming life isn’t an easy sell.
Joe Jr. left for the Navy for four years before coming back home, and Mark left as well, heading out on his own at age 23 to start his own trucking company. Leaving his father’s farm, he says, was tough.
“It didn’t go over well with Pop, because he knew we were good workers and it’s hard to replace that,” Mark recalls. But eight years later, when Mark was struggling in the trucking business, his dad asked him to come back to the farm. Now, as he bounds around the milking parlor, talking about growing the farm to hand down a strong business to his own kids, it’s hard to see how he ever did anything else.
“I want to give these kids a good opportunity,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they have to do it. But if they want to, it will be here for them. With them seeming so excited about it, it makes it easier on those tough days.”
Upon close examination, the “good old days” were rarely as good as our memories like to make them. Such is the case with farming, Joseph says. By today’s standards the Haberli farm isn’t very big, but it’s big enough to employ a dozen people, offer vacation time, and allow the family to take a break from handling every milking shift, as families must on smaller farms.
If you could snap your fingers and take farming back to the way it was 40 years ago, Joseph doesn’t think many of today’s farmers would do it.
“You didn’t have much back then, and you didn’t have any money,” he says. “It was tough. It was living day to day.”
Joseph says the last five years or so have been the best time for farming he has ever experienced. Milk and crop prices are good enough that he says a farmer can make a buck if you do a good job managing your expenses.
When he started, he says, it wasn’t a business.
“If I made $10,000 in a year I thought, geeze, this ain’t too bad,” Joseph says. “Now, it’s a big business. Millions come in, and millions go out.”
Last year, Joe Jr. says, the farm was a $7 million enterprise.
When Joseph bought the farm he says regulation wasn’t an issue. A farmer didn’t have to worry about hormones and medications for animals, how or where he spread his manure, and he wasn’t concerned with manure runoff contaminating the water table.
Those days are over, but Joseph doesn’t begrudge the regulations that have brought so much anger from the mouths of many longtime farmers.
“There are some who grew up farming a certain way and never got out of that,” Joseph says. “They don’t see how they should be doing something differently because that’s the way they’ve always done things. But I’ve always said I’m not going to be like my dad. I’m not going to be like an old man. I’m gonna keep my mind young and open.”
He sympathizes with other small farmers who are about his age, nearing retirement, who learn they have to spend tens of thousands on a new manure storage pit to meet new state standards. That’s their retirement money. Some of the regulations, says Joe Jr., could use a little more common sense, “but some of the rules are good things to keep some of the bad farmers from getting away with everything.”
“Some of these guys don’t want to change,” Joe Jr. says. “They’re dragging crap all over the road or not improving. Dad would never let us do that. You left manure on the road, he made you go out and shovel it up.”
Joseph says that’s just common sense to keep the farm clean and respect other people.
“I don’t want to drive my truck down a road with manure on it,” he says. “I don’t want to go to church smelling like a cow.”
Mark and Joe Jr. plan to grow their herd, so when the Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department told them they needed a new storage system they began working with the department to build one much larger, more advanced, and more costly than presently needed.
“We have a great relationship with Soil and Water,” Mark says. “It’s not always perfect, but you can work with them if you have a plan. We want to grow, we want this to be a sustainable business when our kids are ready to take over. That is part of it.”
Joe Jr. says that some farmers still tell you they don’t have time to go to the meetings, to give input and to know and follow the regulations.
“I get that, but it’s not an excuse anymore. You have to make the time. Farming today is a business – a big business.”
The retirement plan
Next month Joseph will be 74, and he recently approached his sons to tell them he should take a pay cut. He is, after all, finally slowing down. Joe Jr. and Mark weren’t having it.
“Dad, what are you talking about?” they told him. “You built the farm. That’s your retirement. We are your retirement plan.”
Over three hours of conversation Mark and Joe Jr. mention their father often, referring to lessons ingrained in them as young boys working the farm. Talking to Joseph later, it’s clear that much of their approach to life and to farming is modeled on their father.
Joseph never saved for retirement, and even as he slows down a bit, he has no plans to stop working.
“I got no savings,” he says. “They pay me, and when I’m done, they get the farm. That’s the retirement plan. They’re paying me a wage.”
That’s the plan for Mark and Joe Jr. as well, hoping they can make it an enticing business that their kids will want, and be grateful enough to take care of them someday. They know that handing over the reigns hasn’t always been easy for their pop. He tried once before, in his late 50s, but he says he wasn’t prepared to let it go and let his children make the decisions – and the mistakes that come with them. Now, he says, he is.
“As long as they’re doing a good job, I’m gonna keep my mouth shut,” he says of his sons running the farm. “Right now I go in the house at night, and I sleep. I don’t worry about a thing. Looking at this farm now, I’m kinda proud of it, that’s why I can’t leave. I like to be here with the kids working. I’m gonna farm until I die. I love it.”
Somebody once asked him if he got jealous when he saw people drive by on vacation, heading to the beach or pulling a boat to the lake to go fishing. He says he never really thought about it.
“I’d rather be on the tractor.”
Farming’s Changing Skill Set
The newest tractors on the Haberli farm bear little resemblance to the versions so many rural American boys and girls got their first driving lessons on 30 years ago.
“We had a tractor delivered, and the dealer couldn’t come up to demo it,” Mark Haberli told me. “He asked if I thought I could figure it out. Now, back in the day, who would have thought you would have to ‘figure out’ how to drive a tractor? You’d just shift the gears and go.”
But today when Joe Haberli Jr. hops into the new tractor, he looks at a control deck of flat-screen monitors.
“It’s more computerized than most people would ever imagine,” says the man in charge of the Haberli’s cash cropping division.
Wisconsin farms are changing shape, with a trend toward bigger farms and a massive influx in technology to run them. Mark and Joe Jr. admit that they’re not computer experts, but those screens are necessary today.
“When you weren’t brought up around it, it takes a while to figure it out,” Mark says. “I hope my daughter [Miah, 10] will be teaching me soon.”
Certainly the farm looks drastically different than it did when their father, Joseph, was getting his footing in the 1960s, but the brothers say the pace of change has accelerated the last few years.
In March they installed a new milking parlor with a more efficient motor that allows them to milk more cows, more quickly, and save $200 a month on electric bills.
Now Mark says robotic milkers are the talk of the industry, an idea that scares him.
“One, there goes a few more jobs,” he says, motioning to the two full-time milkers in the parlor behind him who live onsite as they fill the three daily milking shifts. “But being hands-on is also how we keep an eye on the cows. We can monitor their health, notice things. Each cow is different. A robot doesn’t know that.”