Washington to Wisconsin: A Farm Family’s Journey
Last fall, Corby Groen spent three nights corralling escaped young cows back into pasture.
There were issues with fences that surrounded 180 acres of pasture on his new farm and he had to find the gaps and fix them—fast! It was just one of many things he needed to figure out when he moved his organic dairy operation from Lynden, Washington, to Amherst Junction, Wisconsin, in 2021.
Fast forward one year and Groen is settled in. His cattle are grazing in the pasture and Wisconsin is starting to feel like home.
Groen grew up on Hidden Acres Dairy, the northern Washington farm that his grandfather purchased in 1956. Eventually, his father took over the operation and Groen joined him after graduating from college with a degree in dairy sciences in 2008.
The Groen’s organic farm in Washington. Photo courtesy of Randy Small Photography.
The conventional dairy farm raised a registered Jersey herd using intensive grazing and shipped milk to a co-op. In 2016, Groen rented a neighboring farm that produced organic milk and the experience convinced him to transition the cows from his home farm to organic production.
An Organic Valley farmer-member in Washington, Groen continues to be an Organic Valley farmer nearly 2,000 miles away in Wisconsin.
What Is Great About Organic?
Organic Valley farms never use GMOs, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or toxic pesticides. They also keep the farmland ecosystems friendly for their animals and wildlife in general. Groen noticed fewer health issues and lower somatic cell counts in the organic cows, which is an indicator of higher milk quality. The pastures on the certified organic farm were also healthier.
“The more I milked organic cows—I became a believer in organic,” he recalls. After passing the organic certification process, he began shipping milk with Organic Valley.
A Look at a Faraway Farm
Groen and his wife, Tania, and their blended family of six children, outgrew their rental house across the street from the farm. His dad wasn’t ready to sell the homeplace, and the sky-high real estate prices in the Pacific Northwest made it difficult for them to purchase a home.
The couple started exploring other options, and then a social media post changed everything.
“A guy that I follow on Facebook shared this farm that was for sale (in Wisconsin),” Groen said. “I looked at it and thought, ‘We can't buy a house in town for that,’ so I showed my wife and said, ‘Let’s go look!’”
In April 2021, the couple traveled about 2,000 miles from Washington to Wisconsin to see the farm. Though the farm needed work, Groen thought that it had a lot of potential—and it was already certified organic. The family is committed to organic agriculture and also wanted to continue shipping milk with Organic Valley.
The Groen’s organic farm in Wisconsin.
Saying Goodbye to a Beautiful Farm
Groen admitted feeling skeptical that all of the pieces would fall into place to move the farm. The family moved in September 2021.
Their decision to move the farm was bittersweet.
“It was a beautiful farm (and) my heart will always be at that farm, but when I drove off the farm it wasn't the same,” he said. “A lot of friends and family have gone out of business in the dairy industry. There’s been a lot of change in the industry and I thought I was losing ground.”
The family moved from Lynden, Washington, a town near bustling Bellingham that sits just south of the Canadian border in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain Range with views of Mount Baker, to Amherst Junction, a village with fewer than 350 residents in the heart of the Midwest that averages 47 inches of snow every winter.
The Groen farm in Washington. Photo courtesy of Randy Small Photography.
Making the Move and Milking the Cows
The logistics of moving a farm were complex. Groen sold most of his milking cows, reducing his herd from 110 to 60. He moved some of his registered milking shorthorns with the help of a friend, also a dairy farmer, who offered to haul the cattle, stopping to milk them in Montana and Minnesota. Groen and his wife arrived in Wisconsin a few days later.
The family and cows were home! With little time to take it all in, it was on to making sure the cows were getting settled and comfortable in their new environment.
“We arrived about 9 in the morning and that night I milked my cows in a new parlor,” he said.
When the cows began escaping the fence a few days later, Groen called the retired farmer who sold him the dairy, who was happy to help.
Transitioning from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest proved challenging—and not just because of differences in climate—but like the farmer who helped with fences, they always found the help they needed.
“Everybody's been really friendly and inclusive and inviting me to events,” he said.
The Organic Valley team helped the Groens get their new farm established. Organic Valley continues to fight for small family farms, making sure that producers like the Groens have the support they need to thrive.
“I love Organic Valley,” Groen said. “There’s a vet, there’s a nutritionist, there’s an agronomy expert … there is just so much support through the co-op."
The Groen farm in Washington.
Making the Farm Feel Like Home
During the first winter on the farm, Groen learned that the farm needed more repairs than he realized. He spent hours adding to the barn to ensure the cows were dry and cozy.
“You come out here in April and look at the barns and think that they look fine but then you really get into the nitty-gritty of working here every day and you start realizing everything that needs to be fixed,” he said. “This year we're going to be way more prepared.”
As Groen’s first year farming in Wisconsin comes to an end, he’s confident it was—literally—the right move.
“If you really want to move, you can't sweat all the little details. You're never going to find that perfect place. You have to find a place that you think will work and go for it,” he said. “It's a hard step, but it was a good thing.”
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in magazines like National Geographic Traveler, American Way and Hobby Farms. She never turns down a chance to spend the night on a farm, especially if there is an opportunity to snuggle a sheep or caress a cow.
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