FOUNTAIN, Minn. – The Root River State Trail is a 60 mile, paved, multi-use trail that runs on an old railroad line in southeast Minnesota. Along the way, there are many beautiful sites, small towns, rolling hills, wooded areas, river views and a 650-head dairy farm.
“It goes right through our farm,” said Michael Johnson of Trailside Holsteins. “One end is on our driveway, looking down on the farm, and then it wraps around our farm and goes right by our manure pit on the other side of the farm.”
When Michael’s father, Jon, purchased the farm in 1977, the trail was still a railroad with the occasional train going by. It wasn’t much later, in the 80s, that the railroad was paved over and turned into the Root River State Trail.
“He was really concerned it would be a negative, but with people being that close, something could happen,” Johnson said. “It really hasn't though. We’ve never had anything negative happen because of the trails, so it’s definitely positive, lots of good conversations.”
Michael and Margret Johnson farm with Michael’s parents, Jon and Sharon.
When Jon first purchased the farm, he brought six cows with him. The farm came with an additional 40 head. For many years, that was enough the keep the Johnsons busy.
“In 1997, we did our first expansion, converting a tie stall barn into a parlor. We then built a freestyle barn and went to 120 cows,” he said. “Now, we've grown gradually, and it's worked out to about every three or four years we've added a little bit here and there.”
With the 650 milking Holsteins, some dry cows, and replacement heifers that are raised internally, Trailside Holsteins houses close to 800 head of cattle.
It is one of the more interesting sites along the state trail.
“People stop and look and then we stop and talk to them, engaging in conversation,” he said. “If I see somebody at the top of the driveway stop and look at the farm, I'll try to run up there on the four-wheeler or something and see if they have any questions.”
These interactions always seem positive. People are interested in the number of cattle they raise, the farm’s history and how long they have been there. Retired farmers will stop and share stories and consumers are genuinely interested in what they are doing.
“When we start to tell them a little more about the technology we use, then they're really amazed by how sophisticated a modern dairy farm is,” he said.
It is not unlikely that some of the people on the trail have a more negative outlook on the modern dairy farm, but so far, the Johnsons have not encountered one.
Consumer outreach is a big part of Trailside Holsteins. The Johnsons like to host consumer events, bring people to the farm and interact with consumers as much as possible.
“We had a farm-to-fork supper last year in the fall, honoring the harvest supper. We’ve done some fundraisers and I also did a 5K run a couple of times that ended at the farm,” he said. “We try to reach out to the consumer, get the consumer on the farm, and utilizing the bike trail right on our farm is something that my wife and I are pretty passionate about.”
The Johnsons have four kids ranging from six months to seven years old. The two older kids attend preschool and first grade, while the six months old and three-year-old get to hang out with Michael on the farm.
Margret also runs her own agronomy business from the farm, which give her the flexibility to work the farm and take care of the kids.
“We take a lot of pride in making quality products. We ship a full semi of milk to Kwik Trip in Lacrosse, Wis., every day,” Johnson said. “Taking care of our animals and our employees and then seeing that quality product leave the farm every day is where our pride is.”