cows in field

John Kinsman’s Organic Dairy, South Central WI

Meet John Kinsman (pictured below, right) is a Wisconsin dairy farmer who has been stewarding his land for over 50 years.

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Added March 6, 2009. On a rocky and hilly 150 acre farm in south central Wisconsin John Kinsman and his wife reared 10 children, supported only by a small organic milking herd raised primarily on grass and hay. Admitting that this economic feat may not be as feasible now in the time of high land prices and overhead, John does have several suggestions to young farmers today as to how to support a high quality life while preserving and improving a farm’s natural systems. John is the Secretary of the MODPA Board of Directors.

A Look at the Farm

Over 50 years ago John and his wife scraped by enough money to buy a very overworked rental farm located about 1 ½ miles from the farm where John was raised near Lime Ridge, WI. The land is covered with steep hillsides and deep ravines, “It looks like a crumpled blanket,” John laughs. “The land was so misused before we bought it that even the weeds wouldn’t grow,” he recalls. “It looked like a brown highway.” He says they couldn’t even plow, there was virtually no soil left, with rocks “the size of icebergs.”

Fifty years later the pastures are lush and replanted and managed woodlands are thriving. One of John’s first efforts on the struggling landscape was to plant trees to restore the woods. With sustainable forestry as a primary passion, John claims that not a year has gone by that he hasn’t planted a tree. The rocky and steep hillsides are now covered with a beautiful forest. “Even the local conservationists come out to see what unique species we have here,” John claims. “They say we have plants and animals they haven’t seen anywhere else in the area.” There are even several springs that have emerged, where there were never springs before. John’s passion for the forest was fueled by an awareness of the need to put each type of land on the farm into its best use. He saw that the steep rocky hillsides should be wooded to stop erosion and build soil and habitat, and that the rolling hills would be best as pasture. The farm is now divided with about 80-90 acres as pasture and the remainder as woodland, with the cows fenced out of the woods.

Originally thinking he’d grow row crops, John soon realized that the soil couldn’t support cropping systems and so he moved all his flatter ground into pasture. He hasn’t planted corn on the farm in over 45 years, and says that he can grow enough pasture and hay to support his 36 cows and 38 calves and heifers on the 90 acres, with the addition of a little corn purchased from a neighbor. John has never been a high-input farmer, and buys no fertilizer except a few pounds of rock phosphate (to lock in the nitrogen) to mix with each load of manure that he spreads in a light layer over the fields each year. The soil is now rich and darker after 50 years of careful management. Pastures are a diverse mix, an alfalfa base mixed with lots of grasses and clovers. If they need some rejuvenation he will frost seed patches. Paddocks are permanent with a series of lanes and gates that allow John to graze everything or portions at a time in the intensively managed system. Laying out the farm with a local county agent many years ago, they set hay fields into long strips, one 80 acres long, rolling up and down the hills, which makes harvest very easy.

John’s 36 cows are fed only pasture, hay and mineral with a few handfuls of his partner’s organic corn at milking time. He used to feed more protein, but decided to experiment with feeding less and is happy with the result. “It was scary to try it,” he notes, “But I was spending thousands of dollars on buying in protein and losing money.” He says that he had to be willing to have less production in order to make money. With his organic operation and low stress cows, his vet bills are negligible and the cows are healthier. “You have to get to the point that you don’t feel bad about lower DHI records,” he laughs. “I like to work with contented cows, in a leisurely way.”

John isn’t a fan of a lot of fancy management tools. He doesn’t use a computer and isn’t that big on fancy ration formulas. He tells the story that his old partner spent a lot of time on the computer figuring out specific rations for each cow, but they started to lose cows. “The rations got mixed up and no one was looking at the cows,” he says. After that experience he returned to his original idea that you need to judge every cow as an individual, get away from over analyzing with fancy tests and ratios and just go out there to see and feel how things are going. “You have to use common sense and instincts to see problems,” he says. “If I have good cow condition, they are eating well, and the manure looks good, I know I am feeding right.”

For the past several years John has co-farmed with a partner. His previous partner was a young man who eventually left to develop a larger conventional farm on his own. John points out that many folks in his area that have taken the approach of taking large bank loans, or grants from the government, to expand, are now struggling, or even being forced to go out of business. John’s current partner does most of the milking and contributes about half of the farm’s labor. He and John share income and expenses, as the partner also raises beef and the organic corn for all the cattle on his own farm. Since John’s partner’s wife has an off-farm job, it is safe to say that the two farms currently support 1+ ½ families, a total of 4 adults and two teenagers.

A six week stay in the hospital 45 years ago led John into organic production. He had been farming conventionally, but suddenly lost control of his legs and had to be hospitalized. “I was in a ward with several other farmers,” John says, “Many were horribly disfigured.” John continues that the doctors and interns kept coming in and asking him about his use of pesticides. They never came right out and diagnosed his problem as pesticide related, but it was obvious that was what they were thinking because of the questions they asked he and the other farmers. He decided right then to go organic and hasn’t looked back since. He has since worked with his neighbors to try to get them to use organic practices.

Suggestions for Success

John has several recommendations to share regarding how to be successful as an organic dairy farmer and farm advocate:

  • To succeed you must WANT to farm. You must realize that it will be hard work, but that you can succeed if you don’t worry about keeping up with the neighbors. John points out that you can’t listen to the “get bigger” recommendations, as they can make your operation precarious. He adds, “The work is what is satisfying about farming. You have to use or lose your body!” He sees tractors as playthings, and recommends anyone stick with older machinery that can still be fixed in the yard. Computers and other complicated mechanisms on new tractors can lead to a lot of expense and down time when you have to get someone else to fix it.
  • Focus on net income. Most folks like to look at a high gross income, but John emphasizes that the net is what counts. Keep costs low so that you can run an operation that is low stress for both you and your animals (and the land).
  • Work with nature. Being organic is the only lasting way to farm, especially if you have challenging soil conditions such as John started with. You have to partner with nature, don’t try to change nature to what you want. It will take nature awhile to stabilize after it has been misused, and organic is the only way to bring it back. We must focus on making things better for the next, and all, generations.
  • Learn from others, especially internationally. For the past several years John has travelled the world, as a dairy farmer volunteer educator and as a representative of several organizations. Counting farming friends on several continents, John notes that he has learned an incredible amount by talking to and visiting dairy farmers from all over the world. John is the one of the founding members of the Family Farm Defenders, which he and 15 others started in the early 1990s as an alternative to other national farm organizations. “Family Farm Defenders is one of the best regarded farm organizations internationally,” he notes. “We have been committed to working with, not against our international partners.” He has an incredible view of the rise (and hopeful fall) of industrial chemical agriculture in many countries. He sees hope in the large number of farmers that are reclaiming the best of their native traditions and going back to farming the way that people have farmed sustainably for thousands of years . John comments that the negatives of GMOs and chemicals are becoming readily apparent in many countries. The new high expenses they generate are creating huge farming debts and even the destruction of families as debt-ridden farmers sell their own organs or commit suicide.

    John stresses that we need to not only visit other countries, but also encourage people from other places to visit our farms. You will not only learn a lot, but the local media can also become interested and run a story about what you are doing on your farm. Neighbors that hadn’t expressed interest previously may even be enticed to come hear about your farm as part of an international group tour.
  • Become involved! John is a stellar example of the impact one can have by gathering with others to educate and create change. He recommends that anyone can start to generate support for what they do and believe locally by just attending meetings or participating on local committees. He emphasizes the importance of getting consumers involved. “Urban people are the farmers’ best allies,” he notes. They have tremendous power, both in the market place and as strong voices. Developing local partnerships with consumers is well worth your time. “Local and national consumer groups are desperate to hear the farmer voice,” John states. He recommends any farmer shouldn’t be shy to get up and talk. “Just tell your story in your own words, don’t try to be someone else. They want to hear your voice.” He also advocates that pretty much any farmer can tell their story through the print media. Write a letter, an editorial or an article, he says. “If you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself, ask someone to help you. Your voice is very important.”

As you can tell by now, John is a man of many interests and passions. It is hard to know where to stop when relaying all of the important things he has learned and is willing to share. He is excited to have done what he has done and be doing what he is doing, and is an inspiring example of how one farm, one family and one farmer can have a huge, positive impact on the world.

Jody Padgham is the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and also the financial manager at MOSES. She owns a 60-acre grass based farm in central Wisconsin where she raises sheep and organic poultry.