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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
"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
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