Travis and Stephanie Tranel turn common perceptions upside down. These trim, attractive young people look as if they might have stepped off the quad at Harvard University. While they both have college degrees, Stephanie in Biology and Travis in Economics and Finance, they are farmers to the core—Stephanie by choice, and Travis by five generations of lineage.
Grandpa Tranel bought the first of their southwestern Wisconsin farmland back in the 1940s. Today, Tranel family members operate five farms consisting of over a thousand acres within spitting distance of each other. Several of them are organic.
Eighteen year-old Travis took over his father’s operation in 2004. His father, Steve, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer. Though the doctors couldn’t say for certain what caused the cancer, they theorized it was possible the cancer was due to exposure to chemicals on the farm. For that reason, the family decided the rewards weren’t worth the risk and stopped using chemicals.
Travis created a timetable for transitioning the farm to organic production and managed the transitional operation through his final years of high school. By 2006, Tranel Farms was a certified organic dairy and had joined the Organic Valley cooperative. “The transition was a struggle at first,” Stephanie says, “but we were motivated, and Organic Valley was really helpful throughout the process.”
After graduating from high school, Travis had to choose between continuing to manage the family farm or going to college. Never one to let adversity get in his way, he chose to do both, and graduated with degrees in Finance and Economics, both with Maxima Cum Laude distinction, from nearby Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. While attending college, Travis built the farm into what it is today, a certified organic dairy farm that ships over 2 million pounds of grade A milk annually.
The Tranels always pastured their cows, but Travis now manages the grazing more intensively. Their 150 Holstein and Holstein/Swedish Red crosses are rotated to fresh grass every twelve hours. Fifty acres of pasture are managed strictly for grazing and consist of a highly nutritious and palatable mix of tall fescue, clover, alfalfa, timothy and orchard grass. Grazing is good for the cows and good for business.
And Travis is all about business. He loves farming for its own sake, but it is also a career that must support his family. As he points out, “We need to recognize the value and the importance of the family farm. According to a study done by the University of Wisconsin Extension, each cow in the state generates between $15,000 - $17,000 worth of economic activity. This is huge, not only to the farming population, but to the community in general. The study also found that agriculture as a whole provides $51.5B of economic activity and accounts for nearly 500,000 jobs in the state. We need to work hard to maintain and strengthen the strong rural farming and agricultural economy.”
Stephanie adds that Organic Valley’s policy of a fair pay price to its farmer-owners, “makes it possible to make enough money so I can stay home and raise my family. It’s even more special to me that that takes place on a farm. I don’t think there’s any better place to raise kids. Our neighbors are our family, so there are always grandparents and cousins and uncles around.”
Like most farmers, the Tranels have already put in a “40 hour work week” by the time Wednesday rolls around. Still, they’re proud that over 90% of the farm work is done by family members. Because so many Tranel family members farm in close proximity, they are able to achieve an economy of scale when it comes to the extremely expensive machinery used on most farms, and when it comes to labor, many hands make lighter work, as well.
It seems ridiculous to ask the Tranels what they do in their “spare time.” They couldn’t possibly have any. Nevertheless Travis manages to squeeze some fun activities into his busy schedule, like four wheeling, fishing and Packer/Brewer/Badger games. Stephanie’s favorite time of day is when she and Travis go out to move the cows off pasture for the evening milking. It gives them time to catch up, and they love to watch the cows graze.
In addition to farming, Travis was elected to represent the 49th assembly district in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2010. He currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture. He also serves on the Insurance and Financial Institution Committees.