Dairy Farmers Persevere during the Worst Crisis in Decades

Organic milk production sustains fourth-generation Wilke farm

It hurts to say so, but California is now the Dairy State. During the past 15 years, there has been a 49 percent decrease in the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin. In just two years, from 2016 to 2018, the state lost almost 1,200 dairy farms, and another 10 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers were expected to go out of business in 2019, at the rate of two per day.

Many dairy farmers are drowning in debt, and loans are harder to get. The National Farmers Union said last year that Wisconsin had the highest bankruptcy rate in the country. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency now trains its farm-loan officers to look for warning signs of suicide as part of a prevention program.

During the 1970s, Earl Butz, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, told farmers, “Get big or get out.” Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s agriculture secretary, said much the same thing at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last October: “In America, the big get bigger and the small get out.” About 40 percent of all farm income this year is expected to come in the form of federal aid and insurance. Without this assistance, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farm income would be half of what it was in 2013.

In some cases, younger generations don’t want to take over the family farm. 

“Bigger farms may be more efficient,” said Aerica Bjurstrom, Extension agent in Kewaunee County (Door County does not currently have an Extension agent). “Smaller farms may not be able to afford to upgrade the things that would improve efficiency and management. If they can’t do that, they need to decide whether to get out of business. We see a lot of people coming to a point in their career when they have to decide whether to invest in improvements or decide to retire. I recently talked with four people who retired at quite different ages, early forties to mid-sixties, and not a one regretted his decision.”

The story of the Wilke R Organic Farm, owned by Kevin and Tricia Wilke, is one of three dairy farms in Door County that have found creative ways to keep operating productively. You can read about the two others in coming issues.


“Get big or get out” does not apply to Kevin and Tricia Wilke. The fourth-generation farmers own a small dairy south of Carlsville that Kevin’s great-grandparents purchased 133 years ago. Their dairy consists of 49 milk cows and 43 heifers and calves on about 350 acres that they both rent and own. 

While so many dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years, the Wilkes are doing well, specializing in producing organic milk. 

“A small farm like ours can survive because we’re organic. We’re not into a lot of technology, and our overhead is low,” Kevin said. “If you keep your overhead down, you’ll make money. But it’s not so much the money you make in organic farming that makes the difference; it’s the principle behind it. I could never see buying a toxic chemical, spraying it all over your land, and at the end of the day thinking you did something right.” 

It’s been eight years since the Wilkes joined Organic Valley. Founded in LaFarge, Wisconsin, in 1988, it’s the largest farmer-owned co-op in the United States. The Wilke R Organic Farm is one of three producers of organic milk in Door County. The others, all within a five-mile area, are owned by Kevin’s cousin, Shirley DeFere; and her husband, Len, who joined the co-op nearly 20 years ago; and Mike and Katie Polich, members for a decade. 

Joining Organic Valley takes time. For 36 months prior to becoming a co-op member, the land cows graze on must be free of prohibited fertilizers and coated seeds, and every cow must have been free of these materials for a year.

“It wasn’t a difficult switch for us,” Kevin said. “My dad didn’t spray a lot when he farmed this land, and I don’t either. I had to find a source for fertilizer that was not oil-based, but we already baled our own hay, and our cows are free range. When the weather is good, they’re outdoors all day and all night, except for milking time.”

The Wilkes’ milk cows have a sort of buffet to dine on with a rotational grazing schedule that moves them across 10 pastures at two-day intervals, allowing the necessary regrowth before starting the cycle again. Organic rules require that the heifers, six months and older, have their own four or five pastures. They rotate every eight to 10 days because they don’t eat the grass down as quickly.

Kevin plants birdsfoot trefoil, tonic plantain, chicory, red and white clover, alfalfa, sorghum-sudan and a variety of shallow-rooted grasses. Tonic plantain has five-foot roots that are drought resistant – a hedge against dry summers. Both the plantain and chicory are chosen for their high mineral and vitamin content. 

The Wilkes produce about 600,000 pounds of milk a year that’s picked up every two days by an Organic Valley truck and taken wherever it’s needed that day. The co-op owns just two plants – one in the tiny village of Chaseburg, Wisconsin; and the other in McMinnville, Oregon, both of which produce butter. 

Members of the Organic Valley co-op pay 5.5 percent of their base annual income. In return, they receive support and assistance through education, access to feed and forage, and veterinary support. Perhaps most important to farm families, they also receive a stable price and have for nearly 30 years. 

This is especially relevant today.

“Dairy farmers went through five pretty bad years,” said Aerica Bjurstrom, the Extension agent in Kewaunee County. “Things were starting to turn around last January, when COVID-19 hit. Things crashed, and the price for milk fell to the level it was in the 1970s.”

Though the stable price the Wilkes get for their milk might be an anomaly in today’s dairy world, their survival depends – as it does for all farmers – on a lot of hard work. He and Tricia begin their 16-hour days at 4 am seven days a week. They’re a team. Kevin manages the crops while Tricia does the bookkeeping, and, with their three daughters – Rebecca, Rachel and Ruth Wilke – they manage their herd of Jerseys, Ayrshires, Holsteins, Milking Shorthorns and German Fleckviehs.

Organic farming requires feeding the livestock unprocessed feed produced entirely on the farm, using natural techniques to fertilize and control pests, and using no synthetic medications for the cows.

Farming is listed as one of the two most stressful occupations. Dairy farmers, in particular, almost never get a day off. Kevin agrees that it’s not an easy life. 

“But,” he said, “it’s what we like to do.”