A second chance at life
For Gerry and Ann Klinkner, going organic was part of rebuilding a healthy, small family farm after confronting a frightening diagnosis.

By Laura Sayre
Posted March 31, 2005

Organics in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is a leader in organic farming in the United States. The most recent data from the USDA Economic Research Service placed Wisconsin third—behind California and Washington—in the number of certified organic farms. Wisconsin ranks first in the number of organic dairy cows, with 22 percent of the nation's total, as well as first in the number of organic livestock of all types.

The majority of Wisconsin's organic farms are located in the state's southwestern quadrant. This is the area celebrated by Aldo Leopold in his Sand County Almanac and other writings. Much of it lies in the Driftless Region, an ancient, unglaciated land characterized by undulating hills, fertile loess soils and limestone outcroppings. As in northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin's rolling terrain is poorly suited to large-scale conventional agriculture. Smaller, diversified farms have held on; and many of these have transitioned to organic.

Vernon County, situated on the Mississippi River just south of LaCrosse, is thought to have one of the densest concentrations of organic farms in the country—as many as 175 organic farms in an area of less than 800 square miles. New Farm contributors Richard de Wilde and Linda Halley of Harmony Valley farm here, and the Midwest Organic Services Association (Wisconsin's largest organic certifier) is based in the county seat of Viroqua (pop. 3922).

This dense concentration of organic farms is both a cause and an effect of Vernon County's also being home to CROPP/Organic Valley, the largest farmer-owned organic co-operative with a nationwide retail brand. In this two-part series, we'll be looking at a small piece of Organic Valley's wide influence. First, a profile of Gerry and Ann Klinkner, whose 42-cow dairy lies just to the north, in Monroe County, and who have been selling milk to Organic Valley since 2001. Second, a look at the Chaseburg Creamery, a small-town milk processing plant that is now the center of Organic Valley's dairy production.

In January of 1988, just four months after getting married and settling down on his family's dairy farm in southwestern Wisconsin, Gerry Klinkner discovered a lump on his neck one morning when he was shaving.

A few days later he was diagnosed with stage 1 Hodgkin's lymphoma and was scheduled for surgery. His doctors told him he would probably have to undergo chemotherapy as well, and said that if he and his wife, Ann Klinkner, were planning on having children they should consider freezing some of Gerry's sperm, since the treatment could render him sterile. Shortly afterward, Ann found out she was already pregnant.

Around the same time, Gerry and Ann happened to see a TV documentary about the links between agricultural chemicals and certain types of cancer, including Hodgkin's. And he remembered how, when he was young, "that wave [in farm management trends] came through when you wanted to get rid of every single weed." He and his dad and brother, Gerry recalls, "used to mix everything together, we didn't wear any protective gear, we'd be out there spraying in our shirt sleeves in the hottest part of the summer, with the chemicals mixing with your sweat."

Then and there, Gerry swore off using agricultural chemicals on his land.

The Klinkners' path to organic dairy farming in the years since hasn't always been easy. Gerry says the farm was "probably certifiable from about 1993," but they didn't end up getting certified until 2001, in part because in the early years it was difficult to figure out how to market organic milk. They couldn't start selling milk to Organic Valley/CROPP until the co-op had enough prospective producers in their immediate area to justify running a milk route there.

In the mid '90s, Gerry recalls, he had a bad year and ended up spraying in one of his fields, which delayed their organic sales further. That was a discouraging setback, Gerry says, but it had the good effect of making him realize he needed to convince his brother and his brother's family--with whom he shares equipment and partners on field work--to transition to organic methods as well.

Today, the two neighboring families' farms are both certified organic, including about 150 acres of tillable land and 80 acres of permanent pasture and woods. Each family manages its own herd of 40-45 cows and sells independently through Organic Valley.

Along the way, the Klinkners have formed part of a remarkable shift toward organics in southwestern Wisconsin. "I bet you Monroe County has over a hundred organic farmers," says Gerry. This has been a prime area for organic conversion, he notes, in part "because [here] you had a strong base of small farms still functioning."

The organic difference

At the heart of the Klinkners' dairy is a traditional stanchion barn, originally built in 1903 and updated at various points over the years. In the milk house at the front of the barn is a 500-gallon bulk tank, enough to hold five milkings, as required by Organic Valley (the OV truck picks up the milk every other day). At the other end of the barn, a shed addition houses a total mixed ration (TMR) grinder. The farm's organic alfalfa is stored in the hayloft above; pits underneath the barn collect liquid manure and carry it to a small, fenced lagoon at the back.

In some respects, what's remarkable about the Klinkners' dairy operation is how little they had to change in order to get certified organic.

In some respects, what's remarkable about the Klinkners' dairy operation is how little they had to change in order to get certified organic. They still milk Holsteins, and they still focus on corn and alfalfa as their primary crops. They still work with small fields to minimize erosion on their rolling terrain, strip-cropping on the contour and rotating one year of corn (or occasionally two, on the flatter ground) with three to five years of alfalfa.

Now they seed down the alfalfa with oats and try to get on a winter cover of rye after the corn. Although their goal is to grow all their own feed, they occasionally have to buy small amounts of hay or corn, depending on the weather and how their own crops do. They spread manure in the spring and fall on their corn ground and older established hayfields. They raise their own replacement heifers and sell their bull calves to another organic farmer nearby.

Because the Klinkners' farm sits on a busy local road, they're conscious of having transitioned to organic with the eyes of the community on them. Their farmstead and barnyard areas are immaculately tidy. "I want to portray an image of success," Gerry admits, to show that it's feasible to be organic and still run a tight ship. "My system works real good," he says matter-of-factly. Still, the most significant shift is internal: "Your mind has to change about how you feel about what you're doing."

Challenges of the transition

Gerry says the biggest single challenge of the transition was figuring out how to control weeds in the arable parts of their rotation. Initially, Gerry and his brother considered using a rotary hoe, but they eventually decided it wasn't appropriate for hilly land like theirs. Then Gerry's brother suggested buying a flame weeder. "It really works," says Gerry. "And it really gets the neighbors stopping, especially if you do it at night," he laughs.

Flameweeding is more economical than herbicides, Gerry points out. "We actually have better weed control now than we did before [transitioning]."

Gerry recommends flame-weeding corn between day 7 and day 12 after planting, when the corn is just breaking through the soil surface. "You want to do it before you can see the weeds, when they're at the white string stage," he says. "You can move pretty fast; it doesn't take that much tractor time." The flames should be directed at the rows—weeds in between the rows are better managed with traditional cultivation.

Flameweeding is more economical than herbicides, Gerry points out, requiring about five gallons of liquid propane per acre at around $1.20 a gallon. Conventional farmers around here can spend $30-40 per acre on spraying, he says, adding that "We actually have better weed control now than we did before [transitioning]." To control perennial weeds in the permanent pastures, Gerry clips each field after it's been grazed.

A second, broader challenge has been obtaining reliable information about innovative organic management strategies and new materials. "There is no information available for me through county extension," Gerry laments. "Who's doing plot checks on [corn and alfalfa] varieties under organic management? No one. There's no university testing of homeopathic remedies for cattle."

The situation is getting better, though. Their local vet in Cashton, the Klinkners say, is gradually coming to understand organic livestock management. Organic Valley holds regular herd health meetings, and Gerry occasionally gets advice from Dr. Paul Detloff, the nationally recognized homeopathic vet based in Arcadia, Wisc., about 45 miles away.

Gerry's also a fan of Gary Zimmer and Midwestern Bio-Ag, an ag consultancy company based in Blue Mounds, Wisc. Zimmer, who has written a book called The Biological Farmer, advocates regular soil testing and careful attention to mineral balancing in soils, forages, and livestock. Gerry and his brother have purchased corn starter, hay fertilizer and lime products from Midwestern Bio-Ag.

A transformation in herd health

The most dramatic change the Klinkners have seen since converting their farm to organic is in the health of the animals. One of the most troublesome things about being a conventional dairy farmer, Gerry recalls, was knowing "that the cows were eating that stuff too." Now he firmly believes that a healthful, well-managed dairy farm "starts with the soil."

If the cows are eating a healthy, balanced ration grown on healthy, balanced soils, it stands to reason that they're going to be healthier and that they'll produce a better quality milk. In addition to the time they spend grazing, the Klinkners' cows receive a TMR of hay, haylage, corn and minerals. Gerry favors a high forage diet, preferring baled hay and haylage over corn silage, and says that the cows require no additional protein.

Gerry is careful to point out that good organic dairy management requires a fundamental change in attitude, a new way of looking at the ongoing challenges
of farming.

Gerry is careful to point out that good organic dairy management requires more than just a shift in inputs—it requires a fundamental change in attitude, a new way of looking at the ongoing challenges of farming, especially herd health. He gives an example:

"A few years ago there was a fad for using anionic salts in the cows' dry period to prevent milk fever when they calve. My brother and I went to a meeting put on by a feed company, and they were advocating this product. I raised my hand and I said, 'Aren't you just putting a band-aid on that problem, wouldn't it be better to figure out what the real problem is and address it?' And the guy said, 'Well, how would you do that?' And I said, 'Well, by changing what you're feeding your cow, maybe it's that there's too much phosphorous in the forage and it depletes the cow's calcium.' And he said, 'Well, how are you going to change that?' And I said, 'Well, by balancing my soil.'"

Another key to good herd health, Gerry says, is close observation—which is only really possible with a small herd. "If I see a cow looking a little ketotic, I give her a bottle of dextrose and a little grain, and that usually takes care of it." He also uses natural remedies like aloe vera, garlic, and Echinacea.

Holistic herd health management is an ongoing process, he emphasizes. "In a sense, I feel like we're still transitioning; we're gradually getting away from even using the organic-approved products."

It's a way of thinking that pays for itself rapidly. In 2003, the Klinkners say, their total vet bill was $450 for a herd of 40 to 45 cows. On conventional dairies in this area, by comparison, it's not uncommon to have vet bills of $1250 a month for a herd of 70-80 cows. "Your vet bills are not going to go down to zero, but you're going to be more efficient and you're going to be more profitable," Gerry observes. "If your cows don't get sick you don't lose production, [and so] your production is more stable."

Although for many dairy farmers the scariest thing about converting to organic is the prospect of having to permanently remove sick cows from their herds in order to treat them with antibiotics, the Klinkners say they've never had to get rid of a cow for that reason.

Not having to cull based on sickness, moreover, makes it easier to select for qualities like good conformation and disposition. With their own young children in the barn, the Klinkners won't keep cows that are nervous or kicky.

Staying small takes financial savvy

For the Klinkners, another major benefit of going organic has been that they could keep their farm small and remain profitable. "We didn't want to milk more cows," says Gerry; it's too much work and it's too stressful.

In addition to spending less on inputs, as organic dairy farmers the Klinkners receive significantly better prices than their conventional neighbors. When I visited in early November 2004, Organic Valley's price was $18.25 per hundredweight. With premiums for high butterfat, high protein, low somatic cell count and low bacteria counts, they were getting around $20.25 per hundredweight. Gerry does the math: "Say the spread between the conventional and the organic price, on a conservative average, is $4 a hundredweight. If we produce 7500 hundredweight a year, that's $30,000 more than we would be making as conventional dairy farmers of the same size. And that a conservative average," he emphasizes. "There's been years when the price differential is $8 or $10 a hundredweight."

For the Klinkners, another major benefit of going organic has been that they could keep their farm small and remain profitable. "We didn't want to milk more cows," says Gerry; it's too much work and it's too stressful.

Staying small takes as much discipline and planning as getting big—maybe more. One of the first things the Klinkners did right was to take a proactive approach to intergenerational farm transfer. Initially, Gerry and his brother rented the land from their parents; later, they worked out a gradual purchase agreement, which they expect to have fully paid off in another three years.

Second, although Gerry's made a series of capital improvements over the years—the manure pit, an additional silo, a new truck, a heifer barn—he's been careful to avoid significant debt. A couple of times he's taken out a small loan, $10,000 or so, but he never borrows more than he needs, even when it's aggressively offered. He describes what it can be like applying for a small farm loan:

"I looked at my situation and decided that's what I needed. So I went to Farm Credit and they looked at my application, did a credit check, came back and said, 'You're an excellent candidate for an expansion loan, you're eligible for $250,000.' I said, 'Why would I be a candidate for an expansion loan?' They said, 'Because you're an excellent operator at the scale you're on.' I said, 'There you go!'"

"I'm a small farmer," he says simply, shrugging in disbelief at the recollection.

"When farmers get bigger they no longer use the local businesses, [the small shops] can't meet their needs."

--Ann Klinkner

Another satisfaction is that earning a good living at farming makes it possible for the Klinkners to give more back to their local community. They've always tried to support local businesses, Ann says, but now that they have more income they make a real commitment to it, avoiding the chain stores and instead doing their shopping at the local lumberyard, implement dealer, grocery store, and restaurants. "When farmers get bigger they no longer use the local businesses, [the small shops] can't meet their needs," Ann goes on. The town of Cashton, she says, seems to be benefiting from the growing number of small, successful organic farms in the neighborhood—and people in the community are starting to recognize that fact.

Putting the family back in family farming

Gerry and Ann Klinkner now have five children--Justin, 16, Jessica, 13, Dillan, 12, Angela, 5, and Rachel, 3--and it's clear that they place a high value on the family side of family farming. Ann, who grew up in the nearby community of Coon Valley, describes herself as "a town girl who always wanted to live and work on a farm." ("So I got my dream," she adds.) The kids, too, are actively involved with the farm, helping out with the milking and other chores. Their oldest son recently went into the organic egg business, managing 350 laying hens and selling about 27 dozen eggs a day through Organic Valley.

But they also emphasize that it's important to get away from the farm, both as individuals and as a family. They have non-farm related hobbies: Ann sings, Gerry hunts and does carpentry and woodworking, the kids play sports. A few years back Gerry and his oldest son took up archery, and last year they made a family holiday out of going to the qualifying matches in West Virginia.

"We just really enjoy farming," says Ann. "And we have time to do other things." "I feel farming is a lot of fun right now," Gerry adds. "With the animals so healthy, going to the barn to do the milking is relaxing, not stressful."

With his own health restored, their farming system working well and their finances in good order, the Klinkners are looking forward to many more years of organic farming for themselves, their children, and their wider community.

"The thing that gets me is, these conventional farmers don't want their kids to stay in farming."

"The thing that gets me is, these conventional farmers don't want their kids to stay in farming," marvels Gerry. "I went to an FFA alumni meeting a while ago, and there was a guy there talking about how he hoped his kids wouldn't decide to farm. I thought, so what are you doing at an FFA alumni meeting?"

All of the Klinkner kids, by contrast, show a strong affinity for farming, and (although it's too soon to say for sure) Gerry and Ann think that at least some of them will stick with it as a career and a way of life. Over the years, Gerry says, the kids have had to put up with some ribbing at school about their parents being organic farmers—even from their FFA teacher. On the other hand, there are now seven or eight organic farm kids in the FFA class, Gerry reflects, ticking them off by name—so they're obviously gaining an advantage.


Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.