Not many people get to save a family farm, let alone four of them, but cheese-makers Jay and John Noble may do just that.
The Racine County brothers are reopening the Beechwood cheese plant near Adell, in Sheboygan County, that’s been closed for about a year.
By most standards it’s a small plant, a two-man operation where the Nobles will make high-end organic cheese.
But for a handful of dairy farms that were about to lose their milk buyer for the second time in two years, the plant is a lifeline that may keep them in business.
“We will work hard for these farmers, as hard as they work on a daily basis,” Jay Noble said about buying their milk and turning it into Parmesan, Romano and other cheeses.
The four farms, roughly in the Mayville area, were in a tough spot when Westby Cooperative Creamery, of Westby, said it was dropping them this month.
“We must have called 50 to 75 plants and couldn’t find anybody looking for milk,” said Tom Weidmeyer, who milks about 120 cows.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” he said, including the farm crisis of the 1980s that wiped out scores of small dairy operations. But even that stemmed from other economic factors, not a surplus of milk.
“There was always one thing you could count on, and that was the milk guy would be here in the morning,” Weidmeyer said.
For the last few years, however, Wisconsin’s dairy industry has been flooded with milk, some of it from as far away as Texas. Roughly 100 truckloads a day come into Wisconsin from Michigan, according to industry sources.
“We just got oversupplied,” said Westby Creamery manager Pete Kondrup.
Wanting to keep the farms going, the creamery contacted Jay Noble to see if he would reopen his Beechwood plant and take the milk.
He and his brother agreed to give it a try.
“We were in the process of trying to sell the factory so that we could relocate our business closer to home in Racine County, down by Union Grove,” he said.
Now they’re rushing to get the plant up and running again this month, and that includes a mountain of paperwork and certification to make organic dairy products.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle to get this all done in this time frame,” Jay Noble said.
In the interim, Westby has agreed to continue buying milk from the four farms.
“None of them are going to have to sell their cows or anything like that. We are working with them to try and figure things out,” Kondrup said.
Still, without the Nobles stepping up, these farmers could be in dire straits.
Cows have to be milked 365 days a year, two or three times a day. There’s no “off switch” to shut things down when business slows or even ends.
“I don’t want to go through this a third time,” he said.
Jay Noble says he and his brother are going to make cheese for a retail customer they’re not yet ready to name, and they will also bring back some of the Beechwood products.
“The milk is out there; we just have to start slow with farms that need us to take it. And as demand grows, I can see us taking on more farms, more milk, and more employees,” he said.
They may still sell the plant, Jay Noble said, but until then he’s going to keep it running.
Noble’s family has been in agriculture for six generations. He grew up on a farm, and at one time had a milking operation of about 400 cows. A business he owned, Noble View Dairy, sought Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection in 2013, according to court records.
“I know what these farmers are going through, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Noble said. “If we can help them out, so they can keep doing what they love doing, then we certainly will. We were brought up to work until the job is done, so we’re prepared for this.”
A year ago this month, dozens of Wisconsin dairy farms lost their milk buyer and were nearly forced out of business when Grassland Dairy Products, of Greenwood, dropped them because it lost millions of dollars of business in Canada.
A deep downturn in what farmers are paid for their milk has spread across the country, with many farms losing money and burning through their savings at a rapid clip.
“It was really hard during Grassland, and now a year later it’s even worse,” said Carrie Mess, a dairy farmer from Watertown and author of the blog Dairy Carrie.
“I know of several farms in our neighborhood that are selling out now. They are just done,” Mess said.
The Mess farm belongs to a cooperative that, so far, has successfully navigated the worst of the dairy crisis and hasn’t had to stop accepting milk.
“I feel like we’re fairly stable. But feeling that way is one thing, and knowing it is something else,” Mess said.
Farm cooperatives have urged members to think twice about adding more cows to their operations when the marketplace is awash in milk. Some have even offered incentives for members to quit farming altogether.
“If you look at what’s happened over the last 20 years, as farms have gotten bigger and bigger, there’s more of an oversupply issue,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“It’s not caused by the small and medium-size farms that have maintained the same number of animals,” he added.
Thursday, Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative based in La Farge, posted its first annual financial loss in 20 years.
Gross sales topped $1 billion, but Organic Valley had an after-tax loss of $10 million.
“Excess supply of both organic and conventional milk put tremendous pressure on American farmers,” the cooperative said.
The stress on farm families also is considerable. A New England cooperative recently included suicide prevention letters with its milk checks because three of its members had killed themselves.
Some farmers cover up their suicide as a farm accident, said Joel Greeno, president of the group Family Farm Defenders and a farmer near Kendall in southwest Wisconsin.
“These guys start thinking they’re worth more dead than alive, so their families can collect the insurance,” he said.
Greeno quit milking cows about four years ago when the financial strain was taking a heavy toll on him and his family.
Still, he misses the animals, the barn chores and the daily milking routine.
“If it weren’t for trying to save my marriage, I probably wouldn’t have sold the cows until I absolutely had to,” he said.
He said some farmers can’t even cover their daily living expenses.
“You go to bed at night crying because you don’t know what to do. … There’s not much to look forward to when it’s this bad,” Greeno said.