Don & Anne's Story: “There’s so few of us left”

Photos by Alicia Cory from Shotcha Photography.

A day or so before I was set to arrive at the Borgschatz farm, the wind had picked up the state of Texas, mixed it with snow, and dumped it on Minnesota leaving behind a landscape of snirt, the unfortunate name given to such a phenomenon.

No matter what it’s called, the weather was miserably cold and rainy as I pulled into the driveway of Don & Anne Borgschatz’s farm near Plainview, Minnesota. The week prior I’d visited the Hoffman farm (North Creek Dairy) near Chatfield, Minnesota, and heard of how they were forced to sell their entire milking herd after the roof of their barn collapsed. Now, I was excited to experience an operational dairy farm and hear the family’s story amidst the current dairy crisis.

“We have been here 140 years,” Anne said proudly after she’d welcomed Worthy People Project photographer, Alicia, and I into the family’s home.

We settled into the dining room and I learned the farm includes about 170 milking cows, and as many heifers (cows who have never given birth) in addition to about 30 cows that are within a month of calving. The dairy is a few miles from the homestead and although it’s a slightly unusual schedule, milking happens at 2 am and 2pm 24/7/365.

 “Our herdsman likes it that way. It's his choice,” Anne explained. “It works out good for us because we can get to the kids' after school stuff. If we were milking at 5 and 5 it would be a lot tougher for both of us to get to everything.”

At that point, Don, Anne’s husband, pulled up in his farm truck. I was surprised to see him since taking time to do an interview isn’t usually high on a farmer’s priority list.

“How did you two meet?” I asked with a smile after Don joined us at the table.

Anne was the first to answer. “We met at church, at Immanuel Lutheran in Plainview. My parents are the principle (dad) and teacher (mom) at the elementary school connected to that church. They were called here when I was in college at St. Olaf and then after college I spent a year deciding what to do next. 

“What was your degree?” I asked.

“Biology & Chemistry. I wanted to get into vet school, but at that time it was extremely competitive and I spent a year reapplying and met Don in the process and then decided it was time to grow up and do something else instead.”

“So, you met at church,” I asked getting back to the original question, “what did that look like?”

“You want the real story?” Anne smiled while Dan rolled his eyes. “My mom, in addition to teaching 5th & 6th grade, is also the music minister at Immanuel and is in charge of the choirs. I had noticed Don before that, but my mom had said, 'There's this guy who's got this really great voice and he's about your age, go talk to him and find out if he's willing to join the choir.' A year later, we were in the process of getting married.”

“What did you think of this girl that asked if you wanted to be in choir?” I asked turning to Don.

“I don't know...” he said trailing off. I think this was the last thing he wanted to talk about. Poor guy.

“First of all, I thought he was a Zabel, so I got his name wrong,” Anne insisted.

“It's a safe assumption around here,” Don said.

“So you joined the choir?” I asked him.

"Yep, so we sang in the choir – it was a contemporary choir.”

“That was 20 years ago,” Ann sounded surprised.

“It's 19 years married coming up," Don added.

a 140-year legacy

Don had been living at the dairy farm when he and Anne met though he wasn’t farming full-time, necessarily.

“I took a fair amount of tech classes, like composite and mechanical engineering, but the further I got into something it just didn’t seem right. I was always getting drawn back to the farm.”

“That's when your uncle was still alive,” Anne inserted.

“Yeah,” Don continued, “when he got sick, it was an instinctive thing, so we came back here and decided we were going to make a go of this. Everything kind of just kept drawing us back.”

Don’s uncle, who owned and operated the farm, developed metastatic liver cancer and when the end came it came fairly rapidly. There was enough time to make arrangements for the transfer of the farm, but Don & Anne had to make a quick decision.

“The choice was we make the jump and continue this farming legacy or it was done,” Ann said. “It sounds weird, but it was like it was meant to be. I was working second shift in a lab at Mayo, coming home and then doing the bookwork for the farm while raising two kids. Our youngest was six-months-old. Basically, I wasn’t sleeping.”

Then, when Don’s uncle got sick. It seemed to make sense to jump in.

“So, we did, with both feet.” 

“How many years ago was it that the farm was transferred to you?” I asked.

“Twelve,” Don answered.

“So, twelve years since you started milking full-time?”

“Yep.”

In the milking parlor

In the milking parlor

In terms of workload, the farm has two full-time employees. Don manages and works the dairy while Anne manages the calf and heifer raising, book keeping, the household and she also does the bookkeeping for Hidden Stream Farm/Dover Processing.

“I took a lot of accounting and business classes thinking I'd run my own vet clinic,” she explained, “but it's come in handy this way.”

what about these past 12 years?

“Has farming gotten easier or harder in the past 12 years?” I was intrigued.

“Huh,” Don let out a sort of explosive laugh that signaled he’d pondered this sort of thing before, but wasn’t yet sure how he felt about it.  “That's a tricky question,” he added. “This has kind of been an historic slug. I mean I can’t speak to the wave of economies in the dairy industry over the past 50 years, but I can speak for the past 10 years and it isn’t pretty.”

“Well,” I said, “it doesn’t seem possible that our dairy farmers are making anything when a gallon of milk is $1.73. A disconnect seems to exist between those of us on the consuming end and those that produce a gallon of milk.”

“Right,” Don agreed, “there's a big disconnect between the retail price and what we’re receiving at the farm level.”

“The price of milk and cheese doesn't change whether we get paid $24 a hundredweight or $13 a hundredweight,” Anne added.

For those uninformed (myself included), dairy farmers are paid by weight rather than volume and a unit of measurement for liquid milk is a hundredweight. That means if a gallon of milk weighs approximately 8.6 pounds, a hundredweight of milk is approximately 11.63 gallons.

“So, you've gone from $24 to $13 a hundredweight?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Don said, “In 2009, we received under $10 and then the best was $24 in 2014. Since then its been either sideways or just daily losses, really.” 

My dad was a dairy farmer in the 1980s. He recalled recently that he was paid around $13 a hundredweight in 1985.  That means farmers are receiving, today, what farmers were paid 34 years ago. The difference is $13 held a lot more purchase power 34 years ago. Back then minimum wage was $3.35.

“Absolute breakeven is about $19, now,” Anne explained. “When we took over they were saying $12 or $13 was breakeven. Now, it's $19. That doesn't include paying our bills; that's just to produce the milk.”

this all seems unbelievable, really

“The last 4 years has been pretty brutal,” Don admitted. “We’re short about $2 a hundredweight and over the course of 3 years you’re talking $240,000. When things get ugly, you know, we have to refinance or restructure.

“The downside is it’s got a long tail – we’ll pay 12 - 15 cents a hundredweight for the next ten years to cover that...it's pretty ugly. I mean, it's very...,” Don sighed a tired sigh, “there's so few of us left. 

We all sort of paused and took it in, this changing landscape.

“I mean it's really bizarre to get up everyday and go to work and...”

“...lose money,” Anne finished Don’s thought.

“Have you guys planned out how far you can go with the prices being so low?” Alicia, the blog’s photographer asked.

“We're gettin' close,” Dan replied. “People are leaving in record numbers. Local communities are going to feel it soon. It used to be there were so many farms that you could have a 40 cow dairy close and those cows would go to a farm down the road. The cows would stay in the local community. Well, we had 1,200 cows leave the state in a 10-day period a month ago.

“The reality is you need all dairy regardless of scale. I have trouble wrapping my head around these 2-4,000 cow operations but I've been on them and the cattle are getting cared for very well. But change is happening so fast, almost overnight. Our farm is becoming a hobby farm even if there is probably 2 million dollars in equity that we’re trying to get a return on.”

“Have you ever thought of getting bigger?” Alicia asked.

“We haven't bought cattle that I can remember, but we've eased our way up on numbers a little bit.”

“My answer to that would be, yes, we've thought about increasing,” Anne interposed, “but the amount of increasing that you've had to do has gone up exponentially. Twelve years ago the number of cows needed to reach a breakeven sweet spot was 300, now that number is 3-5,000 cows.”

One of the main reasons the Borgschatz haven’t grown their operation is they don’t want to outgrow their land base of 480 acres. Currently, the harvest from this acreage is enough to feed their herd with some left over to sell.  And, with land prices being what they are, buying additional acreage doesn’t make sense.

“Why do you do it, then?” I arrived at the question we’d all been thinking.

Don and Anne laughed and then fell quiet.

"I don't know," Anne said faintly.

“I guess the thought of getting a regular job is still worse than trying to make our way through this, “ Don said finally.

“I hate that phrase ‘regular job,’ Anne interrupted firmly, “farming is a regular job.”

“Let me put it this way,” Don said, “I go to the Twin Cities and a half hour in and I'm done. There isn't enough money in the world that could make me live up there. I just couldn't do it. We're lucky to have Rochester so handy, but man, I get stuck in traffic there and I always think ‘life's too short to sit and watch this one red light.’”

Alicia and I laughed. Because it’s true.

“The trouble is passion can get you into trouble,” Don said.

where from here?

 “Where does your milk go?” I asked getting back to some logistics.

“For the last four years our milk has been sold to Agropur in LeSeur, Minnesota. It's quite a hike,” Don responded.

“On the consumer end of it, what can we do to support dairy farmers? I asked “Of course, we don't control the price of cheese, but is there particular cheese or brands that would support you best?”

“That's a great question. Buying any of it helps,” Dan answered. 

Many factors are at the root of the current dairy crisis. Changing consumer habits (hello, almond milk), better farming practices leading to greater production & surplus, as well as rapidly diminishing competition among milk creameries or milk processors are just some of those factors.

But, the bottom line is, low prices are forcing farms to close.

“The bad part is, it isn't the farmers who are not real excited about farming that are going by the wayside, but we're losing good, progressive farms,” Anne said. “They aren't l lackadaisical. They are good, professional farmers.”

walking through to forward

At that point, I asked if we could take a tour of their barn, so we all got in our vehicles and drove the few miles to the dairy.  The driveway in front of the barn was sloppy with heavy snow and mud. Thankfully, I’d brought my muck boots.

The door from the outside led us into the tank room and into the double-8 parlor that was rebuilt as such in 2005. From the parlor we walked through the older, free stall barn, abandoned years ago because it couldn’t offer the sort of cow comfort Don wanted. It now serves as a walkway to the newer, free stall barn.  Connecting the old and new barn is the original barn no longer recognizable except for the old, exposed barn beams and haymow.

The first to greet us in the newer, free stall barn was the soon-to-be mother cows. Most were lying down on their bed of straw chewing cud contentedly.

Then, it was on to the milking cows. Don seemed most at home in the barn, happy to show us around. Anne pointed out her children’s 4-H animals. Cows had their name written next to the number on their ear tags. One cow was even completely white except for some black freckles on her nose. 

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“We have two separate groups of cows and in each group they have their own society, you know, and their own place. You’ll see mothers and daughters together,” Anne shared as we walked slowly through the barn.

I asked if they had been concerned about roof collapse this past winter due to record amounts of snow. Don said he’d shoveled his roof three times, but fell off the roof the third time, so decided that was enough. But, they knew of the Hoffman family’s loss and, in fact, knew well the farmer who had purchased their herd.

"That's the farming community,” Anne said. “We have neighbors who were out of power yesterday and were worried about their generator. People just started offering in case they needed one. That’s just the way it works. We all have to work together. I think that's one of the things people think is lost from modern dairy farming, but it's not. The farming community is very, very interwoven and very connected and we help out. That's what you do."

While we walked through the barn, seeing the progression from a century ago to today, I couldn’t help think it was a reflection of a rapidly changing industry. But, despite all the change, I was fairly certain one thing would stay the same. People. The same fortitude, commitment, and passion that had brought them here would carry them forward. And, despite their losses, many of them, like the Borgschatz, still have a smile on their face.

Because what else combines purpose and independence so well? Where else can a person’s labor benefit so many?

So, go have a glass of milk, eat some cheese, or better yet, enjoy a big bowl of ice cream. Just know there’s a whole lot of love and labor that has brought that food to your table.

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