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Making a living off dairy -- Times are (finally) good, but few farms still operate

BECKER COUNTY -- Roger Engstrom remembers milking his first cow when he was just 12 years old.

"I used a milk machine -- my dad had one of the first milk machines in Becker County," says the retired Detroit Lakes dairy farmer.

Engstrom, who still lives in the home where he was raised, says that his grandfather first homesteaded the property in 1893.

"There's a reference in my grandmother's diary, from May 1895, about when she made her first (shopping) trip into Detroit (the 'Lakes' was added later)," Engstrom says. "She had seven pounds of butter to use in trade for things she needed at home. They didn't have any money --they used the barter system.

"You might say that was the beginning of value-added agriculture in Becker County," he added, noting that farmers in those days would raise crops, harvest and store them, then feed them to the cows, who in turn produced milk and cream which could either be sold or used to make butter, cheese and other dairy products.

Cows also produced manure, which was used to fertilize the fields for the next season's crops.

"That was value-added agriculture in its infancy ... we didn't even realize we were doing it," Engstrom says.

The dairy industry has had its ups and downs since then.

"We used to have almost 600 dairy farms in Becker County," Engstrom says.

Currently, according to Minnesota Ag Statistics, there are fewer than 100 dairy herds left in the county -- 72, to be exact.

That's quite a change from even 15 years ago, when Minnesota Ag Statistics indicated there were 268 herds countywide. It reflects statewide trends, which show that the number of herds in Minnesota has also declined, from 14,637 in 1992 to 5,186 in 2007.

But while the number of dairy farms in the county has seen a steady decline over the past 30 years, things are currently looking up, according to Mark and Kristine Spadgenske, who together with Mark's twin brother Mike, own and operate a dairy farm on the eastern edge of the county.

"For the last year, milk pries have been very good," Mark says.

"Though we are losing farms in Minnesota, the number of cows, and milk production, are going up," Kristine added.

The Spadgenskes, who have been milking cows since 1994, said they started in a rented facility about a mile from their current operation.

"In 1996, we bought Mike's (Mark's brother) place, which is two miles from here," Kristine says. "We raised heifers there. Then in 1998, we bought this place."

Kristine comes by her love of dairy farming naturally -- her parents, Chuck and Karen Boyer, operated a dairy farm near Frazee.

"I grew up on a dairy farm -- Mark did not," she says. "He grew up on a hobby farm. Mark and Mike did relief milking for area farmers -- that's where their interest in dairy farming came from."

They got their start in the industry by working as herdsmen for a farmer by Perham -- not only to see if it was something they really wanted to do for a living, but "to see if they could actually work together," said Kristine with a little smile.

They've been at it ever since. In fact, the Spadgenskes are so involved in the industry that they participate in a program called People Behind the Product (also known as "Speakout"), which was developed by the Midwest Dairy Association, a non-profit organization that promotes education and research into dairy and dairy products.

"They (MDA) were asking consumers what they wanted to know about dairy farming," Kristine says. "What they really wanted was to hear from the farmers themselves, about what we were doing on the farms to assure the consumer they were getting a wholesome product."

So the Spadgenskes began making presentations on dairy farming to civic organizations in the area.

"We go all over the area doing that -- Detroit Lakes, Osage, Perham -- talking about our practices on the farm," Kristine says. "We've made 11 presentations to date."

So why do they do it?

"We have a passion for what we do -- I think most dairy farmers wouldn't be doing what we do if they didn't," Kristine says. "We take care of the land, the water and the air -- that's something consumers are very interested in hearing about today."

One of the biggest changes in the dairy industry over the years, Kristine says, has been the fact that "we're not just feeding our kids or our families anymore -- now, because of how the industry has changed, we're feeding the families of the world."

One of the main reasons why dairy farmers need to be so passionate about their profession, Kristine says, is that "it's not just a challenging industry; it requires dedication and understanding on the part of all family members, because of the sacrifices you need to make."

For instance, she says, their four children have had to learn from a very early age that their dad can't be present for all their school activities, because he has to work.

"Cows don't take a vacation," she says. "Everybody else gets Thanksgiving and Christmas off, but we don't. The cows don't care (whether it's a holiday or not) --they still need to be milked twice a day, for their comfort and well-being."

"It's a 24/7 job," Engstrom agrees, recalling a favorite quote from former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns (2005-07), who once said, "After growing up on a dairy farm, everything in life seems easy."

"It's a continuous cycle," Engstrom explains.

But one advantage kids have in growing up on a dairy farm is that they learn responsibility from an early age. The Spadgenskes say that all of their older children -- Ryan, 10, Kate, 8, and Adam, 4 -- have chores they must do, as will their youngest, one-year-old Seth, when he is able.

"A farm is the best place to raise our children," Kristine says. "They learn so much... responsibility, moral values, work ethics ... by learning the challenges that come along with farming, from the beginning.

"They learn very quickly the time and dedication it takes, but at the same time, our kids are farm kids. They love to be outside, working in the barn with the animals."

Engstrom agrees. "One thing we've lost in our society is that kids don't see their parents working (in factories or at the office)." Thus, they are unable to learn by example.

Kids who grew up on the farm, by contrast, not only watched their parents work, but worked with them, side by side.

"It was a real family affair," he says.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454