There Is No Right Way To Become A Farmer ...
Pat Skogen, an organic dairy farmer in Wisconsin, tells her story of coming late and unexpectedly to farming.
By Pat Skogen
This essay was submitted by Pat Skogen to the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union (WFU). As a result, Pat was awarded one of two Legislative Fly-In Scholarships and is traveling to Washington D.C. September 13 – 16, 2009 where she will be joining 15 WFU farmer-members to speak to legislators on Capitol Hill about concerns for all farmers. Pat and her husband Ralph have a 100-acre rotationally grazed organic dairy farm, certified by MOSA. They are a purchased feed operation and milk 27 cows.
Some are born into a family farm; some marry into it, some start it on their own. Some plan their whole life around becoming a farmer; others grow into it over a lifetime, and some, like me, discover new dimensions in a way of life that had been in the background until midlife and then becomes reality almost by accident. There is not one right way to be a farmer-but there is commonality--a streak of independence; an appreciation of the land, respect for the animals who share it with us and the community of like-minded people who support and sustain us; a responsibility to nurture, feed and sustain our community.
My name is Pat Skogen. My husband, Ralph Reeson, and our children, Ken and Autumn, started Reeson Family Farm outside Loganville in October 2001, but the story of our farm began much earlier. I was raised with ponies and horses which my father, Selmer Skogen, bred, raised, trained, traded, drove in parades, statewide pulling contests, plowing contests and wagon rides. By the time I went to college, I’d been Santa Claus at a tree farm, back-up reinsman for a 20-pony hitch, run away with numerous times, bucked off and gotten back on, won blue ribbons and come in last. I baled and mowed a lot of hay. I did not like chickens and was afraid of cows. I’m over it now.
Teaching special education students was my chosen career for 27 years. I taught in Beloit, Dodgeville, Oregon and in Wyoming and at Beloit College. I have a Masters Degree in teaching students with Learning Disabilities and Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Most of my research and work was with students who have dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and mood disorders. I continue to follow the exciting new research in brain chemistry and learning. When I say that I am deeply concerned about the nutrition of our nation’s children, my experience is based on public education, with lunch ladies, 15-minute lunch times, two high school classes in food science and preparation, brain hydration, and food additives’ effects on kids. My experience dovetails with research and the growing movement to reinstate local, fresh foods in school menus. However, I think we need to go further. We now have a generation raised on fast, processed, “easy” food. They don’t know how to cook and many of their parents don’t, either. “Home Ec” has been “Food Science” or “Consumer Living” for 30 years now-a career elective. When I have recipe cards at the farmers market, or give extra vegetables to WIC mothers, I keep in mind that I am teaching nutrition, preservation, cooking and food safety as I farm.
When I met Ralph in the late 80s, I was teaching full-time, but living, learning and working at Folklore Village Farm near Dodgeville. I hosted a guesthouse and helped maintain over 30 flower and vegetable gardens with founder Jane Farwell. I danced, sang and led Saturday night potlucks. I helped preserve and cook all kinds of ethnic foods for festival weekends. I absorbed Jane’s philosophy of rural recreation - that any event is made by the people who form a community at that time and place, and that each one is integral to that community. It would not be the same if any one had not been there. When I speak of my concern for rural communities, of the loss of rural businesses, churches, 4-H, WFU, softball games and socials, pancake feeds and spaghetti suppers, I am passing on Jane’s concern, not just a fear for the profitibilty of my own farm. The loss of a farm affects a community. Every highway bypass, CAFO and Walmart affects a community. I am not saying they should be banned, but that we-the collective WE-should be mindful. Just as test scores do not fully analyze all a child’s learning or a teacher’s accountability, so a water test, feasibility study, profitability analysis or geological survey do not convey the full impact of change on a rural community when a family farm fails.
When I speak of the unique traits of a family farm, I think of Ralph. The eldest son of 14, he learned to milk cows by hand so his dad could go to work as a carpenter. When we met, he was the “go-to relief milker” for several farms, dreaming of how he would run a farm if he had one. He kept sneaking these baby calves in on me even though we lived in town. “Beef in the freezer!” he’d say, as we spent Saturdays at Farm & Fleet or hauling hay. By 2001, we had 5 cows being milked at various friend’s or family’s farms, 15 heifers and steers at a rented pasture, and were selling beef halves to siblings and friends that paid for our processing and feed. I put my foot down. “Sell them or buy a farm!” (Here I am imagining buying new furniture and siding for the Victorian house we had gutted and renovated in Ridgeway.)
Because of Hwy 18-151 becoming a four-lane from Madison to Dubuque and Prairie du Chien, land prices had skyrocketed from $1000 to $3000 per acre around Dodgeville. We searched south to the state line and east to Evansville. Instead, we found a 100 acre farm 40 miles north that we could afford. We began selling milk to Foremost Farms in April 2002 with the goal of transitioning to organic certification in 5 years. Philosophy aside, we simply couldn’t afford any inputs or machinery. That was our business plan. A huge amount of learning later, I appreciate the breadth and depth of knowledge any farmer carries in their head. Anyone who stereotypes a farmer as ignorant, backward or uncomplicated is simply uninformed. When I speak of respect due family farmers and the knowledge they bridge from past to future, I speak as one who is thankful for the knowledge I brought to farming, and aware that any person farming today is dependant on those close to the land, not the government, university or boardroom alone, for success. They work harder and know more about many things than anyone I met in academia and should be able to earn an honest living wage for their families.
It has taken me a few years to consolidate and articulate my opposition to large, corporate farms. Again, I have Ralph to thank. The man knows how to milk cows. He set a personal quality goal of keeping his SCC below 100,000 for a year. Many months it has been below 50,000. While I still look to see if milk is going up the plastic tube from the milker, he can touch the cow and know she is done. He knows when she is developing mastitis and has his own informal experiments on the effectiveness of calves sucking as a treatment.
After watching him, you cannot tell me a robotic parlor, low-paid employees or digital printouts can milk a cow better than those curved, callused hands. As he was a master concrete finisher making a good wage, he is now a master milker and should be paid accordingly. A man who knows his craft. When farmers have lost their farms, who will pass those skills on? My daughter is learning them, but will too many of her teenage years be spent in poverty for her to choose to continue? As I write this, our organic milk price has gone from 27.50 to 23.50, but when there is “too much” organic cheese, our milk is comingled with conventionally farmed milk for $12.00/cwt. That’s better than $9.60/cwt, but a long way from cost of organic production, or conventional production. Quality over quantity should be rewarded.
That’s my story. I have a headful of statistics and I’m sure I will add more. I firmly believe in Farmer’s Union promotion of education, cooperation and citizen action. As we look for ways to increase the efficiency and scope of our farm, we struggle earning a living, let alone adding value to our products. A second job? Farming is a full-time, overtime job. It does not fit neatly in a risk management plan. Those who take the biggest risk in this market-providing safe food for our citizens-despite factors outside their control, deserve just compensation. They deserve universal health care for the risks they take every day on a farm. They deserve the opportunity to sell their goods without undue regulation needed in corporate food production. Nationwide e coli outbreaks have not come from family farms. Family farms should have incentives to co-op and market their goods. They need affordable access to the internet to stay current in the small amount of time they have available. To preserve the integrity of our food supply, legislators and government agencies need to support family farms that have the stewardship of the land in their backyard, not corporate farms that have their boardroom, stockholders and lobbyists in their back pocket. If only corporations own farmland and markets, we will only be able to eat corporate food.
Our nation has the opportunity to engage debate on the future of our farmland. Once lost, it will not return. Once the soil is depleted, it will take years of organic matter—not chemicals --to produce food. We need to face many challenges worldwide, but the amount and safety of our food should not be one of them. Food sovereignty and the responsibility and willingness to pay for it is a national priority now and the debate must begin now, before we lose our farms.
Pat Skogen, Reeson Family Farm, Loganville, WI