About twenty miles south of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, there is a three hundred-acre dairy farm that was a dream come true for Matt and Rebekah Fendry and their daughter, Nora. The young couple bought the turn-key operation (complete with a herd of Holsteins) from a farmer who had managed the farm organically since 1992. “The tilth of this soil is unbelievable,” Matt says.
Matt has had farming on the brain since he was four years old. He grew up on hobby farms where his parents tended large gardens and always kept chickens and pigs for the family’s sustenance. “They were very health conscious,” Matt says, “so naturally it rubbed off.”
By the time he was in high school, Matt managed a one and a half acre market garden, 500 laying hens and a herd of beef cattle. He direct-marketed all of it.
Somewhere in there, Matt managed to work part-time on a couple of dairies, and that is where he found his niche. “Once I started milking cows I dropped everything else. I love working with livestock. When I graduated high school, my parents helped me build a milking parlor and I started milking 25 Jerseys. I love being more involved with the cattle and the day-to-day handling. They’re a lot more hands-on than beef cattle. I had the great honor to spend time with Dr. Paul Dettloff. He found my first herd for me. He helped me out when I started with the dairy. I’m so comfortable with organic management I would never consider doing it another way. I would treat my cows the same way even if I was conventional.”
Back in southeast Minnesota where they grew up, Matt and Rebekah ran up against the same obstacle many young farmers do: if you do not have an already established farm to buy into, it is very hard to find one, and even harder to find contiguous acreage. “After Beka and I got married, we farmed in Minnesota for two more years. We were running land all over the place, trying to manage three farms spread out over 20 miles.”
“Our goal has always been to work together, as a family,” Rebekah says. “I knew what I was getting into. While we dated we were milking cows and planting corn and I still enjoy doing that with him today. I love what we do. I love working outdoors. My role on the farm now is assistant manager. In summer Matt does most of the field work and I do most of the milking and some field work. I raise all the calves. A lot of the time we work together.” Matt adds, “Rebekah’s got the touch with the cows.” They always play music when milking, always country.
From May through September or October (depending on the weather), the Fendrys rotationally graze their cows in twelve-hour shifts. “But we’re big on night grazing in the high heat of summer,” Matt says. “During the day there’s just not enough shade in the pastures. I mean, you take a lawn chair and sit out in a pasture on a hot humid day and see how you feel. Consider, too, that a cow’s body temperature is a lot higher than ours. If they’re not comfortable they won’t eat. So we keep them under cover with the fans on, and then let them out to graze at night when it cools down.”
Just as the previous owner did, Matt manages the pastures for density and lushness. The forages consist of orchard and rye grasses, clovers, and alfalfa. They added a new calf barn and a heifer facility.
Matt has been an Organic Valley farmer/owner since 2001, and loves it. “I was going to OV meetings when I first started milking cows, so I was already familiar with the co-op and its philosophy. When I started with Organic Valley there were only about 150 farms in the co-op. I was 19 at the time, and for a while I was the youngest member. Everybody’s been so supportive.”
“I’m impressed with how the co-op markets the farmers, and I see a future for small farms because of it. People are getting more interested in their food and knowing where it comes from. Rebekah adds, “Our attitudes toward farming and the way we raise our kids will go a long way toward giving them a positive attitude toward farming.”
Matt says, “For too long agricultural policy has favored cheap food, but that mentality has to change. Everybody talks about soil health and humane animal care and that’s important. But true sustainability includes the economic side, too. Rebekah and I put in 100 to 120 hours a week. When organic is done right, we compete with conventional production, hands down.”