By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
“Out in the Fields with God,” a poem displayed in the kitchen of Colleen and Ralph Krogmeier captures their appreciation for God’s creation, which they experience daily on their dairy farm in Donnellson. The poem speaks of losing “the little cares that fretted me” … “among the lowing of the herds” and “Where ill thoughts die and good are born — out in the fields with God.”
Even in the high-tech era, “dairying,” as the couple refers to their livelihood, requires full-time commitment, perseverance and trust in God to see them through the good and the challenging times. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is one of those challenging times, but the Krogmeiers, members of St. Boniface Parish in Farmington, savor their blessings — family, faith, good health, a thriving dairy farm and their cheese plant.
Children’s laughter, coming from the swimming pool in the backyard, punctuates the quiet of the wide-open spaces on 400 acres of rolling hills and grassy pastures on a late morning in June. A breeze whispers in the trees.
Colleen and Ralph, both 61 and married for 40 years, take pride and joy in raising healthy cows, caring for the land and producing top quality milk, and now, artisan cheese. Caring for the land means stewardship practices such as growing cover crops, no-tillage planting and diverse crop rotations.
“Besides milk, the cows also do a great job at making fertilizer, so very little synthetic fertilizer is used,” the couple says on their Hinterland Dairy Farmstead Cheese website. A native Iowa prairie emerges in the land around the cheese plant. “Sustainable agriculture is a top priority for us, so a lot of work goes into growing crops while protecting the land and water for generations to come.”
Over in the barns on the first of the Krogmeiers’ two farms, cows eat from the trough while calves sun themselves outside their little house-like shelters. A cow rests in the maternity suite, waiting to give birth. On the couple’s second farm, just down the road, is Hinterland Dairy Farmstead Cheese, the plant they built three years ago to produce artisan cheese.
The cheese plant fulfills a long-time dream. “With the addition of Hinterland Dairy, the circle is now complete — the animals and feed are raised on the land, the cows are milked with the care of our own hands, and that milk is processed into cheese and delivered to the customer right here on the farm” (www.hinterlanddairy.com).
Weathering the pandemic
They did not start cheese production in April, as planned because of the temporary shutdown of many businesses and activities in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Ralph said the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the fluid milk market, but not their dairying operation for Prairie Farms Dairy. Milk prices dropped but are rebounding, the Krogmeiers said. They have begun making cheese again and have reopened their retail area. In addition to themselves and one of their daughters, they employ several other part-time employees, including high school students to help milk cows.
While some dairy farmers reportedly had to dump milk during the ongoing pandemic, because of school and restaurant shutdowns, the Krogmeiers did not. They have had a longtime contract with Prairie Farms, a farmer-owned cooperative of 700 dairy farmers throughout the Midwest.
“At Prairie Farms, within our cooperative, we never had to dump any milk,” said Public Relations Manager Darin Copeland. “We’re better positioned to shift our volume away from schools and restaurants and into grocery stores and food pantries. We worked really hard to manage that change brought on by COVID-19.”
Copeland said Prairie Farms Dairy also participates in a USDA program, Farmers to Families Food Box Program. A response to the pandemic, it aims to put American farmers and distributors back to work while supporting food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need. Prairie Farms has committed to participating in the food box program through August.
Even before the pandemic, a number of dairy farms struggled. Data in 2019 shows the largest annual decline in the number of licensed dairy operations since 2004, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service’s monthly Milk Production Report released Feb. 20. “Since the end of 2014, dairy farmers have struggled with low prices resulting from large supplies outweighing demand, in the U.S. and around the world” (https://tinyurl.com/y8nvow9y).
“Dairy farms have seen an 8-10% loss of farms in the last several years, partially economic and partially lifestyle reasons,” the Krogmeiers say. “The dairy business is a very demanding year-round business, and like all of agriculture a very stressful occupation. Dealing with markets and weather, it takes daily management of all resources in order to stay in business. All of agriculture is cyclical and being able to manage during good times and bad is so important. We think consumers take their food for granted and during this pandemic hopefully people have realized just how much goes into getting that milk, meat, produce and all food to the shelf at the grocery store.”
Forty years and counting
Colleen and Ralph entered farming during the farm crisis of the 1980s, “so we had not yet built up any assets that were devalued, which was fortunate in that aspect. Dairy farming is different from corn/soybean farming, as it is more stable and less risk involved. To survive difficult times, you need to be able to adapt to change and look for strength from above. We also had off-farm income at that time which included health insurance.”
The Krogmeiers committed to the dairying lifestyle from the day they married in 1980, during Dairy Month in June, of course. They fell in love while attending Aquinas Catholic High School in Fort Madison. Colleen was a city girl, living across the street from St. Mary Church in Fort Madison. Ralph grew up on a dairy farm.
“We rented dad’s farm for five years and then moved west 13 miles and started another farm,” Ralph says. “We farm 400 acres, about half of it tillable and the balance in pasture and timber.” They enjoy their office, the fields where they grow hay and corn silage to feed their 150 cows, which they milk twice daily, 365 days a year. “The cows take about 90 percent of our time. Everything we raise goes to feed the cows,” Ralph says.
Their three daughters grew up on the farm and milked cows. All three participated in extracurricular activities outside the farm, with their parents’ blessings. “When I grew up, farming was the priority,” Ralph says. Their youngest daughter, Shannon, a 2015 graduate of Iowa State University, is part of the dairy farming operation now. “She worked in the real world for six months and decided she wanted to work with us on the farm.”
Open spaces and blessings
Three years ago, following extensive research and planning, they started building Hinterland Dairy Farmstead Cheese. Ralph attended college classes to learn cheese-making skills. The couple focuses on maintaining the livelihood they love while not worrying about passing the dairy farms to the next generation. Their daughters have their own lives to lead, they said. “We don’t want them to feel obligated,” Ralph said.
“It’s impossible not to worry when things get tough,” Colleen says. “However, I always go back to one of Father (David) Wilkening’s sermons regarding that topic. You can worry but that doesn’t do anything but wear you out. Instead, pray for what you are worrying about, which is much more productive! Being on the farm with a lot of quiet time gives you a lot of time for prayer! Also, focus your energy on what you need to do to get you through those tough times.”
Colleen and Ralph love their rural community. “Rural communities offer so much for everyone’s general well-being. Everything from support from neighbors when needed to being able to appreciate nature, the open spaces and all the blessings around us.”
Within the rural community is another community, their parish, St. Boniface. “Definitely our fellow parishioners are one of the things we love about our parish. It is a small parish and many of us only see each other on Sunday, so it is a wonderful time to gather and visit. In happy times and sad the parish and the people are always ready to support each other.”
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