Editor's note: This article is the next in a series featuring Wisconsin farmer-members of dairy cooperatives. The following article features Jason and Emily Stark, owners of Farm in the Dells of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. They’re members of Scenic Central Milk Producers.
When did you begin farming and why?
Emily Stark: We both have been farming since our youth. Jason's family left dairy farming when he was younger so he worked for different dairies and trimmed hooves. He also worked for a large grain farmer and farmed the family’s ground.
I returned in 2012 to my family farm in Indiana after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. In 2014 my parents and I moved the dairy operations to Wisconsin. I bought the dairy part of the farm from my parents in January 2020.
Jason and I married in February 2020. He’s been working full time on the farm with me since December 2020.
We both have fond memories of being raised on family farms. We enjoy the variety of work that comes with farming and being outdoors. Crazy or stupid, we wanted to farm; it's in our blood. That's what spurs us on to keep the farm going.
In what ways does being a member of Scenic Central Milk Producers help you?
Emily Stark: We like that Scenic Central is a relatively small co-op compared to many other dairy co-ops. We appreciate they still care about the small farmer.
Before Jason came into the picture I already was in the process of buying the farm from my parents. I downsized the herd to just 36 cows. Scenic Central was still supportive and more than willing to work with me at that herd size.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the dairy industry faces today?
Emily Stark: We believe one of the biggest challenges are milk prices. We've seen them range from $12 per hundredweight to $28 per hundredweight in just a little more than two years. We know that changing milk prices are part of the industry, but there must be some way to better stabilize them. There must be a better way to regulate production.
We think milk companies need to take more responsibility for regulating producer production. We think that's the best starting point for balancing surpluses and deficits in the milk market. That will hopefully help to reduce the swings and lengthy times of suppressed milk prices. The increased costs for feed, crops, supplies and equipment make things even more challenging. It has been one roller coaster of a ride for dairy farmers the past few years.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities the dairy industry has now and in the future?
Emily Stark: Nowadays beer and wine trails are a popular way for people to travel locally to see and experience new places. We think our state promotion boards need to work to create ice cream and cheese trails. We think that would be a great opportunity for the dairy industry to continue to share its story in a fun and unique way.
On an international level we think there could be some opportunities for dairy exports, with the turmoil happening in different countries and surrounding agriculture.
What do you like the most and the least about working as a dairy farmer?
Emily Stark: The thing we like most about being dairy farmers is being our own boss. Dairy farming requires a lot of long, hard hours. But it's nice to be able to set the schedule we want to work. We milk at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. That gives us the afternoon and evening to work, and occasionally meet with family or friends.
The least favorite part of the job is being unable to be away. We keep our herd size small so we’re able to manage everything ourselves from day to day. The downside is that it makes it challenging to find help when we want to go away.
How do you think your farm’s business will change in the next 10 years?
Emily Stark: One big change we’d like to make would be to process some of our own milk to make ice cream. Some of my fondest memories growing up are getting together with family and eating homemade ice cream. I’d love to be a small part of other families, making wonderful memories together over delicious ice cream.
Another change we’d like to make is installing a milking robot. Our parlor was built in the 1970s and is starting to show its age. We like the flexibility that robots can offer. It would be very helpful during the busy seasons because just the two of us farm.
We continue to make little improvements as time and money allow. It can be frustrating at times. It feels like we’re making slow progress. But nothing big ever happens overnight. We just need to remind ourselves that farming isn't a sprint; it’s a marathon.
Scenic Central Milk Producers, founded in 1998, is a dairy-marketing cooperative consisting of about 200 dairy-farm members located primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, with a small group in the Green Bay area. Scenic Central’s goal is to maximize producer milk checks by selling excellent-quality milk and keeping operating overhead at a minimum. Visit sceniccentral.com for more information.
This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.