A sign at the ridge-top Wisconsin farm tells you it’s a Century Farm, a designation bestowed on land that has been owned by a single family for 100 years or more. This 525-acre spread located minutes away from the Organic Valley headquarters in La Farge, is home to Mark and Rachel Parker and their four children.
The farm was homesteaded in 1899 and operated as a classic diversified farm, which included dairy cows and sheep. Today, it is home to certified organic dairy cows and organically raised beef cows, although sheep have tried to make a comeback. “Seth tried to be a sheep farmer for about two years,” Mark says with a wry smile at his son. “We found out that Mom didn’t like the sheep in her flowers much, and they really liked flowers.”
The farm’s acreage consists of 25 acres for grazing the milk cows, 80 acres of pasture for the grass-fed beef cattle, and 70 acres of pasture for dairy youngstock.
The farm is truly a family-run endeavor. Mark manages the daily operations along with Zane and Seth. Rachel does the farm budgeting and bookkeeping. Jocelyn and Clara, true daddy’s girls, fill in the gaps and help keep the business and the family humming.
Mark, the fourth generation of Parkers, raises organic corn and hay primarily to sustain their own cows, then they sell the surplus. The dairy cows eat mostly forages, such as fresh grass or hay, and receive a small grain ration. The family’s 30 Holstein and Holstein-cross cows are milked twice a day and rotated every two days through pasture that is segmented into 13 large paddocks. Mark has tried cross-breeding the cows to make the herd more efficient grazers, resulting in a few Montbéliarde-Holstein crosses and a couple of Swedish-Red Holsteins.
The kids own a stake in the growing beef herd. So far Seth owns five head, Zane owns four, and Jocelyn owns four. “We’ve been selling the steers to friends and family, and we’ve been keeping the heifers to build the herd up,” explains Mark. An abundance of heifer calves means that few steers have been sold for meat, causing Rachel to jokingly call the Red Angus cattle, “beautiful pasture ornaments.”
Rachel was a farm kid herself when she met Mark. “I grew up on a farm north of here, the middle child of ten. I saw Mark in the park one day in La Farge and I guess it was that farmer’s tan that got me.”
Mark wanted to keep farming right out of high school. “My mother told me she didn’t want me to farm because it was a hard life,” recalls Mark. “I went to college for three days. The only window I had faced a brick wall. I knew my future was back on the farm.”
Rachel began working at Organic Valley as an equity accountant in May 2005 and today is the cooperative’s equity manager. Working for Organic Valley re-introduced her to the possibilities of organic agriculture. “I felt really strongly that the conventional milk price wasn’t sustainable. I asked questions of the farmers I interacted with at the co-op and I thought, ‘If it works for them, it could work for us.’” The Parkers’ Century Farm was certified organic in 2007.
“There is always that thought of ‘What if it doesn’t work?’” Mark said of the decision to go organic. “My biggest fear was for the crops. Are we going to get a crop of weeds or corn? After our first year of transition, I had a guy come to help harvest my corn and he said, ‘This is not organic corn’ and I said, ‘Yes, it is’ and he said, ‘I’ve seen conventional corn with more weeds than this.’”
More than weeds, the Parkers were concerned about the effects of conventional agriculture on human health. “When we were dating, there were a few times that Mark sprayed chemicals on the crops and he became very sick for a few days,” recalls Rachel. “His dad has had skin cancer and now has Parkinson’s disease.”
Mark adds, “There’s a reason farmers lead the country in diseases, especially cancer, because they have to deal with all those chemicals.” The Parkers didn’t want that for their family.
The organic philosophy of caring for the land was also familiar to them. Mark and his parents have employed many conservation practices on the farm, including preventing soil and water run-off with contour strips, crop rotations and tree planting.
Another hundred years?
“The boys are really excited about farming, and Zane is very into conservation and forestry,” says Rachel.
“We might put up a parlor and have 60 cows one of these days,” Mark speculates. “We’ve got so many options that will allow our kids to be a part of the farm if they choose that path.”
Rachel agrees, "The kids have already picked out where they want to build their homes. We see that our children could build a livelihood and purpose here. We are starting to think about that moment when we are 80 years old and can see our family around us. That, to us, is the most satisfying thing."