Hurting but proud, Theresa Depies never imagined starting a GoFundMe campaign to help save her dairy farm.
Yet hundreds of donations later, and blended with other help, she had raised $165,510 to keep Springbrook Organic Dairy from closing less than a week before a foreclosure auction.
“We were getting very scared because people were already coming to look at the farm ahead of the auction. That made it very real. That freaked us out,” Depies said.
Springbrook, in Washburn County, is one of thousands of farms nationwide that have used GoFundMe to raise money to stay in business or to get through a crisis.
On its website, GoFundMe boasts that it has raised billions of dollars for charitable causes since 2010. Through the service, people can donate directly to individuals in need, like victims of Hurricane Florence.
There are now more than 2,500 U.S. dairy farms on the website, with some farmers urgently appealing for help after their finances were ruined by three years of low milk prices.
“I have never asked for a handout, but I can’t keep borrowing money to pay for things,” one Wisconsin farmer wrote. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for even considering helping us continue our journey.”
Springbrook was hit by a confluence of events, including a multi-year drought that wiped out its grazing pasture and added $200,000 in hay costs.
Struck with Lyme disease that was undiagnosed for years, Theresa Depies’ husband, Jeff Depies, was barely able to work.
“When you’re a farmer, your self-worth is based on how much you can get done in a day. When you can’t do anything for months, and that turns into years, it’s ugly,” Theresa Depies said.
She spent months putting together a GoFundMe campaign, beginning last year, telling the farm’s story in words, pictures and a video.
It worked. Donations poured in as people learned of the farm’s plight. Much of the money was raised locally, but some of it came from out-of-state and even overseas.
“I was surprised at the generosity of people. And I was surprised at the people who did not support us,” Depies said.
The campaign didn’t offer any perks, like a T-shirt or a hat for pitching in a few bucks.
But the farm has a cheese and yogurt plant supplying local grocery stores, and that helped because customers at least knew and trusted the Springbrook name.
Still, it left Depies feeling down. She never imagined turning to GoFundMe donors to keep from losing the farm.
“I felt a huge sadness after the campaign. I felt shame,” she said.
And yet, saddled with low milk prices, debt and high operating costs, thousands of dairy farms have folded. Wisconsin lost 500 in 2017 alone, according to state records, and about 430 closed in the first eight months of this year.
As farms struggle for survival, Depies said, they ought to consider crowdfunding for things such as establishing a cheese plant to generate more income, or growing produce for local grocery stores and individual consumers.
Reach out to people and let them be part of your business plan, she suggested.
“I will never go to a lender again,” Depies said, though she doesn’t blame the USDA Farm Service Agency for her trouble.
Such efforts are not a panacea.
Many farms that launch GoFundMe campaigns raise only a few thousand dollars, or in some cases, nothing.
But in Door County, Dale and Karen Cihlar have generated $92,000 from a campaign aimed at saving their 145-year-old dairy farm that milks about 30 cows.
Their financial trouble began after they took out a loan to put in a manure storage system.
Milk prices crashed and they struggled to make loan payments and cover their bills.
Mired in debt, the Cihlars could have filed for bankruptcy. But it would have spelled the end of their dairy farm, which has been in the family for four generations.
“We weren’t ready to walk away,” Karen Cihlar said.
Their GoFundMe campaign was aimed at raising $35,000, but they got $40,000 in a matter of hours as donations poured in from Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, Florida, Washington, Hawaii and other states.
“It was like the movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where at the end all of the people come and give money,” Dale Cihlar said.
“It has restored our faith in mankind. There were two or three negative reactions, but everything else was positive,” Karen Cihlar said.
They’ve kept the campaign going even as they’ve eclipsed their goal.
“We’ve paid off all our high-interest loans and credit cards. We just have our mortgages left,” Dale Cihlar said.
If milk prices don’t fall any further, they say, the farm should survive.
The Cihlars even decided to pay it forward for a similar cause. They made a $250 donation to a GoFundMe campaign for a Fond du Lac County dairy farm that was nearly destroyed by a tornado last month.
Six buildings, including a large cattle barn, were destroyed in the Aug. 28 tornado that slammed Pebble Knolls Dairy east of state Highway 49.
While family members and employees escaped injury, five cows in the 650-cow herd died of injuries from flying debris, and another 24 were shipped to slaughter because of injuries suffered from the sharp edges of twisted sheet metal.
The remainder of the displaced herd was trucked to nine other farms, where the cows will stay until Pebble Knolls is back in operation.
“We are moving forward, slowly,” said farm owner Richard Wetzel.
A neighbor, Melissa Daane, said her children urged her to establish a GoFundMe campaign for the Wetzel farm, which is run by several generations of the Wetzel family.
“The farm is a huge part of the family’s life, and I can’t imagine what they must be going through,” she told the Wisconsin State Farmer newspaper.
Some GoFundMe farm campaigns stem from even worse events.
In April, one was launched for a Barron County family who lost a father and a son in a farm accident.
Dan Briel and his 14-year-old son, David, died after being trapped in a grain silo March 24. Another son, Caleb, managed to escape from the grain bin and called for help.
The GoFundMe campaign was established to help cover funeral expenses and other costs. In 12 days it raised $102,280 from 1,423 donors.
A private donor covered GoFundMe’s processing fee so that 100 percent of the donations went to the Briel family.
For some farms, heavily in debt and unable to cover expenses, donations may only be a temporary solution if their business plan isn’t sustainable.
“GoFundMe is not going to save them,” said Carrie Mess, a dairy farmer from Watertown.
Yet sometimes farmers need a helping hand to get through a crisis, and Mess said she’s donated to GoFundMe campaigns for that purpose.
“I really can’t think of anything that’s more all-consuming than farming. It’s your identity,” she said.
GoFundMe has had scams.
Some people have embellished their own sad narratives, or they’ve invented one from whole cloth.
Yet the dairy farming crisis is very real across the country, not just in Wisconsin.
In Postville, Iowa, Donna Eberling can attest to that. She’s been trying to raise $10,000 in a GoFundMe campaign aimed at helping save her farm.
“We are doing everything we can to cut costs and make ends meet,” she said.
“Our electricity is on the verge of being disconnected every month because the money just isn’t there. We are mentally tired from the stress of trying to make everything work. We are physically tired from working too many jobs to try to keep afloat. … We are tired of the struggle, but we’re too stubborn to give up.”