Generally a buoyant and optimistic farmer, Dale Cihlar was in the depths of despair — several of his prized dairy cows had died, the price paid for milk was plummeting and he was facing another $1,600 monthly payment for a new manure storage system.
“I’ve never been in debt like this,” Dale said. He’s a fourth generation dairy farmer, who took over the family farm in 1990. He and his wife, Karen, sat at the family’s kitchen table with a mound of paper— some of it documenting milk prices and others the lack of income to meet the flow of bills.
After the couple’s appeal to different banks failed, Dale said he could sell a parcel of the farm and told Karen that it might be the way to pull through.
But Karen had a different plan, which she didn’t share with her husband.
“He’s too proud, but I thought if people knew, maybe they would help,” she told the USA Today Network-Wisconsin .
She wrote a heart-felt plea “to save a family farm” on a social media site, GoFundMe, which is a crowdfunding platform to raise money.
Karen’s adult children and some of their friends shared the information on Facebook and donations began to trickle into the GoFundMe site. As the word spread on social media, Karen said she began to get phone calls with offers of help from local farmers, including one with extra hay.
The community including friends, family and people they don’t know is rallying to prevent the demise of another family farm. The Cihlar Farm plight has spread to where donations are coming from people in other states.
Since 1873 a member of the Cihlar family has farmed the 110 acres and it’s been a manageable and family-sustaining business, Dale said. To manage the historical peaks and valleys of milk prices, Dale took to heart the budgeting his father, grandfather and great-grandfather modeled and accumulated savings to pay for large farm expenses and to smooth the inevitable price swings.
In fact, frugality is so ingrained in Dale’s psyche that he didn’t marry Karen until he made his last payment for the family farm.
While milk prices are low, they’ve been lower, and his savings got him through those rough months.
“You’re always saving, or trying to save, for the time when prices are down,” Dale said ruefully.
Savings are being wiped out among dairy farmers across the state: Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017 and more than 150 have quit milking cows so far this year. The total number of milk herds is about 7,600 — down 20 percent from five years ago, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The Cihlar farm had weathered these highs and lows until the perfect storm of dairy woes converged on the farm. The historically low milk checks became even lower after the deaths of several prized milk-producing cows and the $1,600 monthly payment for a manure storage system had eaten all of the farm savings.
Dale and Karen were squeaking by on the salary from her job at the Door County Medical Center, but they had reached the point where the savings were gone.
For more than 100 years, the 110-acre farm and 40 cows had supported the Cihlar family.
“I couldn’t be the last one, I’ve always thought this farm was going to last, was going to be part of my family way into the future,” Dale said.
In less than a month, the GoFundMe site Karen created for donations to save the family farm had raised enough to buy one cow. After one month, they’ve raised almost $8,000 of the $35,000 goal.
“I started to cry. I couldn’t believe that people were actually helping us,” she said.
When Karen showed Dale the GoFundMe site and the donations, he was dumbfounded.
“There are so many things that need help and people fundraising for this and for that. I thought no one would ever want to help a farmer,” Dale said, shaking his head. “Well, I was wrong, this is just beyond words.”
The average cost for a dairy cow runs between $1,000 to $1,600, but there are significant additional costs, including feed and veterinary care.
While the money was the goal, it has resulted in something much larger than the Cihlar farm — sharing the plight of dairy farmers and that people can help.
And Dale’s extended Cihlar family is pitching in to ensure the farm remains in the family.
“I’m the only one of all the cousins to stay in farming and this farm means a lot to all of my cousins, too,” he said.
Besides the donations, Dale also started a part-time job driving a truck, which helps to make ends meet.
Despite knowing firsthand the difficulties of dairy farming, both Dale’s step-son and son-in-law want to keep the farm in the family. Both men plan on taking over the farm when Dale is ready to retire. Every day, they are at the farm helping with chores while maintaining day jobs that pay their bills.
“They already help out every morning and every night and they know it’s not easy or simple,” Dale said.
Dale considers Ethan Lautenbach, Karen’s son from her first marriage, also his son. Ethan has the same passion to farm as his step-dad.
“It’s a challenge every day,” Ethan said, adding it’s a lifestyle he enjoys.
Son-in-law Steven Baxter grew up on a small goat farm in Texas and serves as president of the Door County Farm Bureau.
Similar to Dale, Steve is smitten by the animals and regards them as workers in the milk business.
“If it wasn’t for their milk, we wouldn’t have a dairy,” Steven said. “When a calf is born, it’s just a miracle and we do all we can to make sure it grows up healthy because in the long-run, that cow is what takes care of us.”
It was a tragedy to lose several cows prematurely from natural causes, including cancer and twisted intestines.
“Those things happen and it’s rough for all of us because these cows are a part of our lives,” Steven said.
The joys of farming include the animals and working the land combined with the unknown that each day brings. Farmers across the nation have boom and bust cycles and it’s part of the farming process, he said.
“I suppose it would be nice if there was something that smoothed the variables but then it wouldn’t be farming,” he said.
The farming life also is something he hopes his young children will embrace as adults.
“Right now, they love to pet the calves and they love all the kittens,” Steven said.
The community, friends and family spirit to help out the Cihlar farm is impressive and another indication of the goodness found among people in the Midwest.
The farms that Wisconsin is losing also impacts entire communities, said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a third generation dairy farmer. The Wisconsin Farmers Union is a member-driven advocacy association.
“It’s good to see this willingness and ability to help out in a community,” Von Ruden said. “It means our communities care.
“But the bigger question is how we can prevent this going forward.”
Wisconsin’s dairy farmers are able to meet and exceed milk production needs because of advances in genetics and nutrition. The result is a glut on the market.
The nation’s Dairy Margin Protection Program, which is a voluntary risk management program, is one of the tools available for milk producers to cope with the volatility, but more action by government is required, Von Ruden said.
A national system to manage milk production that would generate fair prices for farmers is one way to solve the crisis, Von Ruden said.
“We have no ability to control the supply of milk and match it to market needs,” Von Ruden said.
Besides a supply management program for the dairy industry that includes farmers and processors, Von Ruden said new legislation should include an emergency relief provision for dairy farmers and stable prices for farmers. The country needs a better system to manage production to ensure that all small farms and family farms remain viable, he said.
Janet Toonen, of Wisconsin Dells, grew up in Door County and knows both Karen and Dale. She’s also a small business owner and said she made a “small” cash donation to the Cihlar Farm GoFundMe site. Without the support of the community, it’s difficult for a small business “to make it,” Toonen said.
“My grandparents were also dairy farmers in Door County and I watched them work extraordinarily hard seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Toonen said and added that the dedication is admirable.
“Honest, caring people like Dale and Karen wouldn’t be asking for help unless it’s truly a last resort,” she said.
When Randy and Dawn Overbeck, who live in Florida, learned about Cihlar Farm plight, they mailed a check because Karen is Dawn’s niece.
“Family should help family because there are times in every life when a helping hand gets you over the bump,” Randy Overbeck said.
But they placed a contingent on the donation: the couple wants Karen and Dale to name one of the cows Dandy Flo, which is a combination of Dawn, Randy and Florida.
Their request brought a smile to Karen’s face.
“We hope in a year or two, we are able to pay it forward to another farmer in need,” Karen said.