The sky was overcast and the air held the promise of spring, but the wind bit at my cheeks as I arrived at North Creek Dairy. There wasn’t anyone in sight as I stepped out of my van and as I looked around I realized it was eerily quiet for a dairy farm of this size. There were a myriad of out buildings. Some old, some new, some were small, and plenty were big. Beyond the buildings were rolling hills of crop and pasture land.
I turned and began walking toward the house. It certainly fit the image of a classic Minnesota farmhouse, but I wasn’t sure if it was a house for the family or if it’d been converted to office space for the running of farm. Maybe it was a house for the herdsman and his family if he had one.
Before I got halfway up the sidewalk I heard a voice call out from one of the outbuildings.
“You looking for Bridget?” I turned and saw a man in overalls walking toward me.
“Yes,” I replied as we split the difference between us. “I’m Sarah,” I said holding out my hand.
“I’m Cory,” he replied with a smile, shaking my hand.
He looked young; almost too young. He must have one of those faces. Lucky guy.
“Here comes Bridget,” he said pointing behind me. Bridget had emerged from another building and approached us. We offered our greetings and I explained why I was there.
“To me,” I said, “there seems to be a disconnect between consumers and farmers. I don’t think most people realize what it takes to produce the food we take for granted and that our farmers are struggling.”
They both nodded their heads.
Four Generations and a Hundred Years
“How old is this farm?” I asked starting the interview.
“I’m fourth generation farmer,” Cory said as if he’d said it a million times. “It was started by my great grandfather in 1903. He moved from the Coulee Region just south of La Crosse and farmed here a year then moved back to Wisconsin and then realized Chatfield wasn’t so bad so came back in 1905.”
“What was here, then, originally?” I looked around at the various building.
Cory followed my gaze. “Well, that barn was built in 1907,” he said pointing to a red, wood building not far from where we were standing. “That's not the original house,” he said pointing to the house. “That was built in '32, I think.”
Cory’s parents live in the farmhouse while Cory and Bridget live about 2 miles away on their own small acreage. Cory’s brother also lives nearby and manages the crops, while Cory manages the dairy production. Both brothers’ wives work on and off the farm helping to support day-to-day operations.
“What kind of crops do you grow?” I asked.
“Alfalfa and corn.”
“For your own feed?”
“Yeah. Then we grow some winter rye on fields after we chop the corn down.”
“No-till farming?” I ask assuming as much.
“Yeah. It helps with soil erosion.”
Honestly, it does more than that. I was happy to see no-till farming being practiced by one of our local farmers.
You’ll Never Meet a Woman in a Cow Barn
“How did you and Cory meet?” I asked turning to Bridget.
“Well,” Bridget said, “I'm a crop farmer's daughter that swore I would never marry a dairy farmer,” she laughed, “but here I am.”
“Well, how did you two meet then?” I asked.
Turns out Bridget had come over to the farm to celebrate some birthdays. She knew it was Cory’s birthday as well, so she made him a cake.
“Did you know him?”
“How were you connected to the family, then?”
“I knew his brother and I used to live in an old house not that far away and knew some other people from the area when I moved here.”
“So, you met here?”
“Well sort of. He never came out of the barn because he was grumpy.”
“Yeah,“ Cory interjected, “I was in my office in the barn laying on the couch feeling sorry for myself,” he said with a smile.
“I went out to the barn and yelled at him for not coming in and eating his damn cake,” Bridget said giving Cory the stink eye.
“She was nice about it,” he said in Bridget’s defense.
“Why were you feeling sorry for yourself?” I asked.
“I don't know, because I was 27 and, you know, cows were my life so it was kind of hard to meet women.”
“Especially when you don't come off the farm,” Bridget chimed in.
“Yeah. Everybody told me I had to get out of the barn to meet someone, well, I proved them wrong!”
“So, you married the first one who came into the barn?”
“I guess,” Cory agreed.
“Where did it go from there?”
“He sent me a message on Facebook asking me when I needed my cake pan back,” Bridget said.” I told him whenever was fine. I just wanted to see if he'd actually come over.”
Cory took it from there. “So, I brought this cake pan over to her and she told me it wasn't her cake pan, but that it was mine. She’d taken it from the break room.” Cory was clearly amused by his wife’s antics.
“I didn't mislead you,” Bridget said, “I just didn't tell you.”
“So I asked her out on a date,” Cory said.
They were married two years later in June of 2012 and the pair now has two children ages six and four years old.
I asked what Bridget’s role was on the farm. In addition to a nearly full-time job at Mayo (she has a degree in bio-med), Bridget does the bookkeeping for the farm, and cares for the calves and heifers.
“Basically from the time they're born until the time they calve they're kind of mine,” she said. “Normally we have 40-50 calves, but right now we have about 15.”
“As I understand it, you sold most of your herd after the roof collapse?” I asked.
“All our lactating cows,” Bridget responded.
“Yeah, all the mother cows,” Cory confirmed.
when the roof caves in
On February 24, 2019, around 1 a.m., during a blizzard like Minnesota hasn’t seen in decades, a section of the roof on their free stall barn collapsed. Thirteen cows were killed and others were injured.
“There were 446 animals in the barn,” Cory told me, “72 dry cows and closed up heifers and 374 milk cows.”
Then a couple days later, on Tuesday, February 26th, at 5:45 am, a second section of the roof collapsed. Overwhelmed, the family made the difficult decision to sell their herd of milking cows.
“How many do you have left?”
“We have 303 heifers. Young stock,” Cory said. A heifer is a cow that has not yet had a calf.
As we began moving toward the barn, the gaping hole in the roof came into full view. It was unsettling and foreboding, a symbol, perhaps, of an entire industry in crisis.
“We built the parlor (where the cows are milked), the holding area and then the main free stall barn in 2007, Cory said. “The barn is 290 feet long and there’s only 60 feet left standing. The new addition was put up four years ago. We used a different builder for the addition, and that’s the builder we’ll use when we rebuild.”
“How many employees did you have?”
“We had nine employees- six full timers and the rest were part time.”
Cory led us into the milking parlor. As I stepped across the threshold, I was inundated by the smell of milk, cows, and cleaner. It’s a smell exclusive to dairy parlors. It’s not offensive but it’s not particularly pleasant, either. It just is what it is.
The parlor is a double-12 meaning they can milk 24 cows at a time at a rate of about 100 cows per hour, 24-7-365, three times a day. They milk at 3:30 a.m., 11a.m., and 7p.m.
“What about the business aspect of farming? I mean, when I go to Costco, milk is about $1.73 a gallon. How in the world can anyone make any money when the price is so low?” I asked.
“We have been losing money every year for the last five years,” Cory said more calmly than I would have in his shoes.
“We used to get really good premiums for the quality of our milk,” Bridget added, “it’s very clean, low bacteria, good butter fat, and good protein, but now there’s so much milk that doesn’t matter, anymore.
“Our milk went to AMPI,” she continued. “They're a big cheese plant and there's so much cheese because that's how they can store the milk. Now there’s a surplus of cheese. That's part of the reason it affected price.”
“Where should people buy their milk to best support our dairy farmers?” I asked genuinely interested in buying from wherever they recommended.
It turns out Kwik Trip is a good place to buy milk. They have a creamery in La Crescent, so milk purchased at Kwik Trip is produced from local farms. Cory also thinks it tastes pretty good.
We walked out of the parlor into an area that connects the parlor with the barn. It is lined with chutes that lead the cows into and out of the parlor. Cows thrive on routine, so having a consistent single file path is critical.
“So, do happy cows make more milk?” I asked.
“Absolutely. No question about it. It's no different than people,” Cory said. “The happier and healthier they are the longer they'll live.”
“Cow comfort is something Cory has invested in,” Bridget added. “He gets upset if you raise your voice at them, and you certainly don't whistle at them. If you want to see him come unhinged you whistle at a cow.”
We laughed, but I made a mental note not to whistle when we got near the cows.
“I always say this is a house of mothers,” Cory said. “They shall be treated as such.” I could hear the passion in his voice.
Measures they take to ensure happy cows include consistency, fresh water and feed, regular trimming, working with a nutritionist, regular veterinary care, the use of Big Ass Fans (brand name) to keep them cool in the summer, and using sand bedding. It's like lying on a beach. They rarely have a sick animal and out of 446 cows only 3 were on medication when the roof collapsed. And, milk from medicated animals (if they are lactating) is not put in the milk supply.
“So, here's the barn then,” Cory said as we turned the corner.
“Oh, my goodness,” I said breathlessly. The sight was impressive. Only a few of the steel trusses were left standing over the length of about two football fields. The stalls sat empty like gaping wounds.
“What this looked liked a few weeks ago is night and day to what it looks now,” Cory said after we’d had a moment to take it in. “We've cleaned up a lot. It was just a tangled mess.”
After the first collapse, Cory spent the day rescuing cows and working to keep other cows from becoming injured. The conditions were terrible. Winds were gusting up to 60 mph blowing fresh snow while cows struggled in the chaos of twisted metal sheets and steel beams.
“We had people that said they wanted to come help, but I told them to stay away,” Cory said. “There were abandoned vehicles on highway 30 right by the farm so I knew we'd end up having to rescue people who came to help.
“So, finally that Tuesday at 9am we had a construction outfit with a telehandler, concrete guys with chop saws and about 30 people coming to help clean up, but at 5:45am the second section went down.”
“Like right after you guys went through with a feed tractor,” Bridget added. “The breeder was also in the barn at the time and he had to run.”
“He was in a pen over here,” Cory said pointing to an area to our left, “and he was underneath the roof when it started to crack, so he took off running, but there was also 100 cows in that same pen with him so they took off running behind him. He had to dive underneath a gate so he didn't get trampled to death.
“Dad and I were across the road mixing some feed and we quick came over here and two minutes later I told dad, ‘The cows gotta go. We don't have a choice.’”
When People Show Up
Cory & his dad had to make the excruciating decision to sell the cattle and then determine how and to whom they’d sell the cows. Word got out quickly and a friend of Cory’s from Lake City called him and bought the cows on the spot.
“That was a huge, huge amount of money for him without even looking at the cows,” Cory reflected, “but he knew me and knew what we had.”
“How do you haul 350 or more cows off a farm in a hurry?” I asked.
“People just showed up,” Bridget responded. “I don't even know who was all here that day. We were busy sorting cows while truck after truck just showed up to haul them where we needed to take them.”
“Some were complete strangers just willing to help,” Cory added.
They milked the cows one last time and got every single one of them off the farm in around five hours.
“It was amazing,” Bridget said. “It was the most amazing...there's still good people in the world. Trucks were lined up on the highway for a while, I guess.”
Goose bumps spread across my arms. I was surprised, but pleasantly so, to hear of such unexpected kindness and support.
“Were there tears shed that day?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. It was extremely emotional,” Cory admitted. “That first collapse happened and we were digging out cows, I kept it all together because we just had to get it done and then Tuesday morning when we knew we had to sell the cows I kind of fell apart.”
“It's something we won't ever forget,” Bridget said.
“Then nine days after we sold the cows we had our third collapse,” Cory continued as he guided us down the long corridor of the barn.
“I didn't know there was a third!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, there was a fourth!” he said, “So, obviously, getting the cows out of here was the right choice. They went to a good home. If they would have stayed we would have had to dig out hundreds and maybe we would have people hurt or killed, as well.”
“This had to have been overwhelming,” I sympathized.
“We spent a lot of time just being very overwhelmed,” Bridget said.
What’s A Family To Do?
“What does this do to a marriage and family?” I asked cautiously.
Cory laughed a lot at that.
“As far as his family, communication is maybe not their best suit,” Bridget responded.
“Yeah, we’re stubborn, stoic Germans,” Cory added.
“But,” Bridget continued. “I've witnessed more of us sitting down and actually trying to plan and communicate than has ever happened before.”
“There has to be moments when that stoicism doesn't matter anymore,” I assumed.
“Yeah. I mean, I don't know. It’s just...” Cory tried on a few words before he settled on what he wanted to say. “...I remind myself of my grandfather that went through the depression. His dad died at a very young age and he had to be a man and help my great grandmother who raised nine kids by herself.
“Anyway, during the depression he took, I think it was, 12 or 15 fat steers and 20 hogs to Stewartville and sold them. He wanted to use that money to buy a pair of shoes and he didn't have enough from the sale of all those animals to buy a pair of shoes. He came back here and sat on the steps and balled his eyes out. I tell everybody, I can still buy a pair of shoes, so things aren't that bad.”
I couldn’t imagine living in Cory’s grandfather’s world.
It’s Not Just Them, It’s An Industry
“Do you see similarities between the depression, or the 80’s farm crisis, and today’s conditions?” I was curious.
“Yeah,” Bridget answered, “Well, I mean, they've been sending out suicide prevention letters in with the milk checks.”
“AMPI hasn't done it,” Cory said, “but other creameries have. They've received a lot of flack from it, but at least they're caring for farmers and hitting this head on.”
“Our production was extremely high which is what has helped us. We didn't get ahead, but we didn't get way behind. We were status quo. Which is pretty good considering.”
Out of approximately 2,500-3,000 dairies in Minnesota, North Creek Dairy was 13th in the state in terms of production, and #1 in Olmsted County.
“At least we went out on a high note!” Cory laughed.
Cory then led us to the part of the barn, the new addition, that withstood the blizzard. There they house about 70 pregnant cows & heifers. In total, they have 303 cows remaining and with no employees, caring for the herd is a full time job for the pair along with the myriad of meetings with bankers, insurance agents, and construction folks.
“It's been crazy.” Bridget sounded like she meant it.
And, any settlement with insurance or rebuilding is delayed because of the number of barns damaged or destroyed this winter.
“Re-building may start in June,” she said
“So, if insurance comes through, would you milk again? I asked.
The fact that North Creek Dairy isn’t producing any milk has made an impact on the local economy. Cory figures there are about 83 other businesses that are affected by their shutdown. In other words, just one farm shutting down can have far reaching consequences.
Of course, we had to finish the tour with a stop at the calf barn. I mean, I really didn’t need to see it, but how could I not?
“Do you still think cows are cute or are you over it?” I asked smiling at the calves staring at us as we walked into their barn.
“No, I still think it's amazing,” came Cory’s response.
I walked from one calf to the next. Here was the future of their farm. A few of the calves had even been born since the roof collapse. There’s something about life that keeps coming around, keeps wanting to happen no matter what.
A little Brown Swiss calf caught my eye, a rarity in a herd of Holsteins.
“Where do you go from here?” I asked.
“That seems to be our million dollar question, currently,” Bridget said.
They don’t have one simple solution on which they can hang their hat. Not yet, anyway. Even though they’ve decided to return to milking once the insurance claim is settled, the industry is still uncertain.
Bridget and Cory have proven they can ride out the storm, both literally and figuratively, and I’m sure they will face whatever comes next with the same determination and passion that has led this family through four generations of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, as as they continue the legacy of family farming in America.