Petherbridge Family Farm’s 123 acres lie in the heart of Northwest Wisconsin’s Indianhead country, just a few miles east of the St. Croix River that demarcates the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. It is easy to see the result of the ancient sculpting forces of nature in the way rugged river bluffs morph into the rolling landscape that is dotted regularly by farms like Mike and Julie’s. The 21 years this farm has been under their stewardship has been at times as tumultuous as those prehistoric eras.
Unlike Julie, Mike did not grow up on a farm, but his mother had. “Mom always brought me down to grandpa’s farm south of the Twin Cities. I couldn’t get enough of being on the farm with grandpa. It was really hard work, mentally and physically. It took a lot of strength to do what he did and I admired that. Because my grandpa was so strong, I thought that farmers were the most important people in the world, and I wanted to be like that. Everything I did since then and every job I worked was with the goal of becoming a full time farmer.”
Had it not been for the strength Mike took from his grandpa way back then, he might not have survived the trials he faced when he and Julie started out on their own farm in 1990, right in the thick of the farm crisis that began a decade earlier and has continued to take a steady toll on family farms until today. Ironically, it was the crisis itself and an FHA foreclosure that enabled them to buy their small dairy operation. By 1993, with the help of Julie’s parents who were still dairy farming, Mike and Julie bought a few cows and started milking. “To me that was like…,” Mike pauses before continuing. “I had cows in the barn. I had arrived.”
While Mike and Julie employed some organic practices when they started out—keeping the cows on pasture as much as possible—they were not certified organic. When conventional milk prices did their usual roller coaster dive, Mike had to sell their first herd of cows in spite of the fact that he had a full-time, off-farm job. They had kids by then, and the money just didn’t add up. Besides, he was afraid of losing the land itself, and that was not an option.
A few years, later, Mike had to try again. Without cows, the place just wasn’t right. They bought another herd. Once again, milk prices on the conventional market took a dive several years running. All the young farmers in the area talked about the decision they faced: get big or get out.
A few of them decided to get bigger, Mike says, “but we couldn’t do that, so I downscaled and went back to work in the Twin Cities at a factory. We kept one cow—we always had a least one cow—but that was the second time around and we hadn’t made it. Still, I was determined to do whatever I had to do to keep the land. If it meant getting rid of the cows and going back to work in the city, I’d do it until I could figure out how to get cows back on the farm.”
They figured it out. Today Mike and Julie are milking about 40 Holsteins that are moved every twelve hours to fresh pasture. “This is our third herd of cows in twenty years. We joke about ‘three strikes and you’re out’, but we don’t intend to go out this time.” Why? Because, since 2006, Petherbridge Family Farm has been certified organic and Mike and Julie have been farmer-owners of Organic Valley. “This past year, for the first time, we’re farming and we’re making a living.”
“We don’t know what the future holds, but it’s exciting to be part of a co-op, in particular, and the organic food movement, in general. The co-op and the organic food movement symbolize hope and promise for small family farms, and they give people a choice of healthier food and healthier lifestyles. Organic Valley works hard to re-connect farmers and consumers. I think that’s so important, because it’s going to benefit farmers, consumers and their health and, ultimately, it’s going to benefit society. Cheap food is not cost effective.”
"From the day I brought cows back on the farm, Julie’s been right there. I couldn’t farm without her. We talk about how great it is to be paid for our work, to have money to pay the bills. This morning we were walking out in the pasture at first light getting the cows. That’s kind of our special time. It’s what we always wanted, to work together on the farm and support ourselves. That’s what gets us up every morning. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Mike and Julie try to instill in their six kids (Cassie, Daniel, David, John, Kristin and Joe) “how neat it is to farm and how great it is to be part of a co-op. I took them to the Minnesota Living Green Expo to volunteer at the Organic Valley booth so they could see that farming’s more than just the rigors of day-to-day chores. We’re part of a bigger picture. We’re part of a good thing.”