RICHLAND CENTER, Wis. – The Fruit family has a nice tradition going. Three generations of the family have been named Richland County Outstanding Young Farmers. Kelly and Rachel Fruit just earned the county’s 2019 award. His parents, Norm and Sandy Fruit, received the award in 1992. And in 1966 his grandparents, Garland and Laura Fruit, were the county’s outstanding young farmers.

Richland County’s Outstanding Young Farmer program also has a nice tradition. For the past 60 years it has been recognizing outstanding young farmers. Jeff Monson, the program’s president, said as far as he knows Richland County is the only county in Wisconsin that still hosts an annual banquet for its outstanding young farmer. In years past more than one farm family was recognized. For example in 1959 six families or individuals were honored.

“In the past 60 years we’ve honored 147 farm families,” Monson said.

He acknowledged the dark times farmers have experienced in recent years. Recognizing an outstanding young farmer offers a brighter side.

“There needs to be time to encourage and uplift,” he said.

Kelly Fruit farms with his father. Together they and four employees milk 205 cows three times daily in a tiestall barn. Sandy Fruit feeds calves and does the farm’s bookkeeping. The family farms 420 acres.

Norm and Sandy Fruit began farming in 1978. They rented a farm for 13 years before in 1991 buying the family farm from his parents. At the time they milked 60 cows; their four children helped with farm chores.

“I enjoyed most the opportunity to work and make decisions for myself, and work with my family,” he said. “I was proud and apprehensive at the same time (at receiving the award),” he said.

His son and daughter-in-law are outstanding parents, he said. Rachel Fruit works as a registered nurse at the Richland Hospital.

“What Rachel does allows Kelly to do what he does,” he said.

Conservation is a priority for the Fruits. They practice contour-strip farming and no-till on their hilly farm north of Richland Center. They have planted cover crops to improve soil tilth for the past three years.

“We’re working on increasing organic matter and try to be better each year,” Kelly Fruit said.

The Fruits feed the cattle all of what they produce. They work to balance rations with the help of Mike Limmex, a senior dairy nutritionist with Furst-McNess of Lodi, Wisconsin.

“Kelly pays close attention to detail and wants to continue to learn more about nutrition,” Limmex said. “He’s the face of the industry’s future.”

Numbers matter, Kelly Fruit said. He recently read about how much a farm can lose in terms of cows refusing feed. Just 3 percent to 5 percent refusal of feed in a 1,000-cow could result in a $30,000 loss.

He and his father have weathered the past few years of depressed milk prices.

“We’ve never been very leveraged,” Kelly Fruit said. “Good production is fantastic but dairy farmers can’t produce their ways out of that. You’re never going to outwork bad financial management.”

The Fruits have a rolling-herd average of 30,000 pounds and a somatic-cell count of about 60,000. They haven’t made any equipment purchases for quite some time.

“You have to be flexible and creative,” he said. “When equipment breaks down you need to find a way to make it work without having to make a service call.”

Another example of how they saved was during the drought of 2012. Straw for bedding was in short supply so they placed bedded pack in gutters.

“And we learned how to become better at growing crops,” he said. “We use a nutrient-management plan to get the most from our farm.”

Kelly Fruit attended in 2005 and 2006 the Farm and Industry Short Course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said he learned a great deal about dairy-herd management there. He was especially interested in milk letdown, milking protocols, reproduction and forages.

One of his instructors was Dick Cates, now retired as director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.

“Kelly took my courses,” Cates said. “He was a diligent, sincere and intelligent young man. I enjoyed interacting with him in class.”

Lonnie Kepler, a neighbor, fellow farmer and a 1995 recipient of the Richland County Outstanding Young Farmer award, nominated the Fruits for the award.

“Kelly and Rachel are a hardworking and deserving family, with a very nice farm,” he said.

The couple has three young children – Finley, Emerson and Scarlett.

“There are a lot of good farmers on that long list of previous winners,” Kelly Fruit said. “It feels good to be a part of that.”

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.