It's no secret that it's hard to start a dairy farm from scratch these days. With significant cash outlay needed for equipment and animals, ever-rising farmland prices and a cyclical high/low market in which to sell milk, if you're not a farm kid who inherits or has the chance to buy into your parents' farm, odds are you're going to choose a different profession in life.
Such as writing a cheese blog, or becoming an accountant.
Richland Center dairy farmer Jeff Jump is an accountant. He's also a dairy farmer. And he's the type of guy Wisconsin is going to have to start recruiting if we want our small-scale, traditional dairy farms to continue to exist in America's Dairyland.
Jeff, 44, his wife Connie, and their two children, Cody, 14 and Molly, 13, moved from Chicago to Richland Center in 2003. Today, they run an 80-acre dairy farm, which when they purchased it, consisted of an old dairy barn that had seen better days, an amazing crop of weeds and thistles, and an old farm house in need of repair. Today, the house has been remodeled, the old dairy barn has been cleaned up and is being used as a calf care facility, and the Jumps have added on a Swing-8 New Zealand style milking parlor and a composting barn/loafing shed, where their 53 Jersey cows look like they're pretty much having the time of their lives.
"We call it the beach," is how Jeff describes his composting barn, which features a clay base and two feet of sawdust mixed with ground corn fodder. Unlike a freestall barn, the shed has a completely open floor plan, with feeding bunks facing the outside, where the Jumps' cows enjoy fresh air while eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"When you get up in the morning, go out to the barn and 90 percent of your cows are laying down, sleeping or chewing their cud, then you've got some pretty happy cows," Jeff says. And he's right -- these girls have got it pretty good. They live on a tidy farm with owners who treat them right. Pick any of the Jumps' cows or calves, and you can literally walk right up to the animal, stretch out your hand and pet it. I'm living proof, as I nearly lost my scarf to a group of calves who decided I was a mid-afternoon snack. I had to yank half of my scarf out of the throat of a 6-month Jersey calf to reclaim it.
So how does a big-city accountant come to be a Wisconsin dairy farmer? A native of South Bend, Indiana, Jeff is a graduate of Indiana University and is a Gulf War veteran. He was working for a food company in Chicago as their chief accountant, when he had the opportunity to invest and do the finances for Hilltop Valley Dairy, a small yogurt company in Richland Center. He had always been interested in the dairy industry, and knew the opportunity would allow his family to get out of the city.
So, for the next several years, he and his family became the stereotypical "city slickers move to the country and get adopted by their neighbors." During the day, Jeff worked for Hilltop Valley. In the evenings and weekends, he played farmer.
"I really wanted to understand the whole circle of the dairy industry, and our kids were at the right age to join 4-H. So we started reading books, talking to the neighboring farmers, and bought a couple of Jersey calves," he said.
But, lo and behold, it turns out that calves grow up. So the Jumps studied the breeding process, got their heifers bred (in fact Jeff learned so much about the artificial insemination process, that he's now an Area Board Rep for Accelerated Genetics -- funny how life works), and then his pregnant heifers had calves.
"Then, we were like - oh my gosh, what do we do with the milk?" So Jeff purchased a portable milking machine - the kind you find at small county fairs - and milked five cows twice a day, dumping the milk, as he couldn't get a milk hauler interested in picking up milk from five cows.
At some point, Jeff says he woke up one morning and realized: "I've got a herd." So he "went off the deep end," built a milking parlor, started milking 10 cows and by now was big enough for the local milk hauler to stop every other day and pick up the milk from his tiny bulk tank.
"The people in this community are amazing," Jeff says. "We are surrounded by neighbors and friends who helped us get to the point where we are now."
That point is a 53-cow Jersey milking herd, with the intent to grow to 100 cows. Jeff's hired some help with the milking and farm chores, as last year, after Hilltop Valley was sold to Schreiber Foods, he began working for Meister Cheese in Muscoda as their finance director and field rep.
With his unique skill sets of being able to run numbers, as well as knowing first-hand how dairy farms work, Jump holds a unique position at Meister Cheese - so unique that President Scott Meister can't figure out a title for him.
"We have to come up with a creative combination of Chief Financial Officer and Head Field Representative," Meister says. "Jeff's got it all - and he's got an amazing repertoire with our dairy farm patrons. We're very lucky to have found him."
I'd say Wisconsin is pretty lucky to have Jeff Jump and his family. As good stewards of the land, conscientious dairy farmers and active community members, perhaps the answer to growing America's Dairyland is to start luring the accountants out of Chicago, one prospective dairy farmer at a time.