When the La Crosse County dairy-breakfast committee decided to cancel the annual dairy breakfast due to a lack of host farms, committee member Louisa Peterson cast the only vote to keep the event in the hopes that they’d find a venue last minute.
When news of the canceled breakfast hit Facebook, it generated a torrent of comments expressing everything from promises to drink more milk and eat more cheese, to support for farmers and sadness that a cherished annual family outing was no longer happening.
Peterson said she needed to do something to save the dairy breakfast.
“It’s a storied tradition,” said Peterson, of Creamery Creek Holsteins in Bangor and secretary of the La Crosse County Dairy Promotion Group. “It’s unacceptable to let it go.”
Peterson asked her husband and their business partners about hosting again, though it’s unprecedented for a farm to hold the dairy breakfast back-to-back. She brought her proposal to the committee that evening. By the next day the dairy breakfast had been reinstated.
“It was short and sweet,” Peterson said. “Everyone was on board.”
Creamery Creek Holsteins has 11 weeks and two days to prepare for the June 15 breakfast; that’s less time than last year. But Peterson said many of the logistics remain the same, and they haven’t planted on the 9 acres they used before to provide parking for the event.
“It’s important to connect consumers with the producers,” Peterson said. “It’s our goal to give people that on-farm opportunity to connect what’s in the glass to what’s on the farm.”
But while this year’s dairy breakfast is back, the circumstances behind its initial cancellation remain. Wisconsin lost 691 dairy farms in the past year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another 127 dairy farms have disappeared since the start of 2019.
There are currently 64 dairy herds in La Crosse County, a decreased from 96 herds in 2014. Meanwhile the Wisconsin milk price was $16.20 per 100 pounds of milk in January, a decrease from $19.30 per 100 pounds in January 2017. For reference 100 pounds of milk is about 11.5 gallons of milk.
“There’s so much — I hate to use the word depression — but it’s a depressing market right now,” said Melissa Schaub, member of the dairy-breakfast committee.
And it’s not just La Crosse County.
Although the Vernon County dairy breakfast is a go, Monroe County is still searching for a host farm this year.
“(Hosting is difficult) with (the) economy the way it is for farming right now,” said Niel Friske, one of the dairy-breakfast board members.
Trempealeau County is also trying to secure a host after its original host needed to back out, said Eric Schaffner, Trempealeau County Dairy Promotion committee member. The county traditionally hasn’t had problems finding a host farm. But fewer farms, depressed commodity prices and mounting repair costs from snow damage after a difficult winter mean less income for farmers to spend on preparing their farms for a dairy breakfast, he said.
Jackson County has found a host, but breakfast chair Max Hart said it was a struggle, also citing economics.
“We always try to get one at least nine months ahead of the time and it came down to the wire,” he said.
Hosting a dairy breakfast — inviting thousands of people to come on a single morning to eat pancakes, scrambled eggs and a multitude of dairy products — is a big commitment. To find a host for this year, the La Crosse County committee started with a five-year-old list of about 100 dairy farms in La Crosse County, Schaub said.
“As we were going through the list, there were five or six that we knew were selling out or had sold this past week,” she said. “The farms that are still running are running on a whim and a prayer.”
When farms said no, the common reason for declining was that they couldn’t shoulder the extra labor and costs of hosting.
“The farmers have so many bigger problems that they don’t want to focus on this right now,” she said.
Perhaps it takes something as drastic as canceling the dairy breakfast for people to understand what farmers are going through, Schaub said.
In Vernon County, Dale and Brenda Torgerson are hosting the dairy breakfast on their 40-cow farm for the first time. It took a lot of convincing for him to say yes, Dale Torgerson said.
“I made it clear I have no money to spend on this and I’m not going to,” he said. “It’s just not there. I’m not going to do unnecessary stuff to make it look like a fake farm.”
But he hopes hosting the dairy breakfast will help them find a market for their milk. They’ve been trying to go organic since 2014 because they weren’t making money from producing conventional milk.
By opening his farm to people through the breakfast, he said he hopes people will better understand the difficulties small family farms face.
“I want them to see we’re an average family trying to make it on a small farm, which is very hard to do,” he said. “It’s taken a toll. It just wears on you. My wife works two jobs. I work off the farm doing construction. It takes every bit of that money to keep surviving this way.”