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Added November 24, 2015.
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin
Travel about thirty minutes north out of Milwaukee into the village of Kewaskum, Wisconsin, population 4,000, head east on State Road 28, cross the East Branch of the Milwaukee River, continue past the town office and St. Michael’s church, and then bear left into the barnyard of long-time Organic Valley producers, Kevin and Lynn Thull. Continue past the driveway and arrive at the southern entrance of Kettle Moraine State Forest - nearly 30,000 acres of rolling hills, lakes, forests and grasslands created 15,000 years ago during the last ice age when the area lay under the grip of colossal ice sheets. The glacier’s mark upon the land is impressive; the product a rolling terrain, a mixture of agricultural, commercial and recreational activity. A concoction of conventional and organic, from here and away, young and old, new ideas and old, coalesce into the face of a modern American community.
Born in 1965, Kevin has always called Kewaskum home. “Farming is what I always wanted to do although I could have done a lot of things. I was the 9th oldest of ten kids and a lot of it was timing,” he explained. “By the time I graduated from high school I had twenty heifers. In 1985, at age twenty, I rented the farm from my dad who passed away seven months later. It was kind of scary the first year,” Kevin chuckled, “but I did a lot of learning on my own and from those around me and was fortunate to have an uncle farming down the road. There certainly are a lot more resources available now to beginning farmers.” In 1988, Kevin completed the purchase of the 120- acre family farm which now bears the simple name of K.T. Organic Farms.
Although Kevin’s dad kept a confinement herd, he quit spraying in the late 1960’s after connecting the boils on his neck with the agricultural chemicals. “He started connecting the dots,” Kevin said. “If you develop healthy soils, healthy crops will follow which in turn will produce healthy animals and healthy people.” He continued, “The things he did back then make a lot more sense to me now.” A forward-thinker like his father, the farm was certified organic in 1992, well before the great swell of growth in organics, with Kevin being one of the first farmers contracted directly by Earth’s Best Baby Food and Health Valley Foods to grow organic sweet corn. Kevin also didn’t hesitate when prompted by his certifier to have his milk certified and he began shipping organic milk to CROPP in 1993, the 25th farmer to produce for the co-op whose membership has grown to roughly 1600 dairy producers.
Organic agriculture depends on forward thinking. It involves a long-term commitment to the health of the soil, land, animals, people and community though progress often occurs so slowly it seems there could never be enough daylight to help the land reach its greatest potential. Kevin, a modern day pioneer of the crazy organic dairying adventure, has never shirked the heavy responsibility required to manifest his goals and visions to the land, animals and people around him. It’s evident in the fact that three of the farm’s employees are local teenagers, not always the easiest group to train and manage, but one that needs to be exposed to the basic realities of where our food comes from and particularly our organic food. It’s evident in the calves: “They’re huge at weaning, solid and rugged,” he said, and it’s also evident in the health and productivity of their 70 milkers, a mixed herd of Holstein, Jersey, Normande, Swedish Red and Fleckvieh. “Herd health is very good. I think we spend more money on our dog’s healthcare needs than on the cows. Cows breed back easily; calve easily. They’ll take care of you if you take care of them,” he said.
His daily commitment - part faith, grit, industriousness and tenacity are evident at every step. A glance reveals the neatly laid out and efficient grazing system in which all groups of animals easily meet the organic grazing standard. Kevin shared his success with using a 12-foot Airway aerator on his 65 acres of permanent pasture, noting that, “It works great at breaking up the hard pan. If I get it done by August the pastures green up during our late summer slump. It allows nutrients to go from the top to the bottom rather than sitting on the surface.” Another look reveals a well-developed and productive cropping system on an additional 225 leased acres, a classic organic mid-western rotation of corn sileage, alfalfa and small grains which are sold as seed or cover crops. The Thull’s gave up feeing grain about seven years ago, and although the rolling herd average has dropped from 18,000 pounds to 15,000 since eliminating grain, their milk production is still a testament to his skill in producing high quality forage.
KT Organic Farms’ Cows Heading to the Barn
Resourcefulness can further be seen in the farm’s direct market beef and pork operation. Building on a base of customers that first started coming to his dad more than fifty years ago, Kevin retains all the steers from the dairy herd, about thirty to forty a year. They’re started on pasture at weaning age, raised on grass until 500 pounds, and are finished on organic forage. Twenty pigs per year are also privately marketed. Diversification is rounded out by the sale of certified organic winter rye seed.
Although it can often be difficult to look up from one’s dirty chore boots, Kevin portrayed a quiet yet strong sense of commitment to the community where he has spent all of his 50 years. The strength of a community of course is the sum of the small actions of many. Explained Kevin, “We have lots of custom work done and I help those custom guys with some of the work they do for other people. We trade a few hours and although it doesn’t balance out it helps out a bit. We have a guy that custom bales and if he gets in a bind I bale for him. My neighbor plants and chops my corn and I go and fill and pack his bunkers. We’re a pretty close-knit community. If somebody’s behind or having a little hard luck we try to help them get caught up. It’s not always a monetary thing. Every hour doesn’t have to be paid for. It’s a good feeling to just be able to help somebody.”
Extending Kevin’s fathers maxim that healthy soils will eventually yield healthy people, the Thull’s also make numerous community donations in the form of tasty and healthy hamburger. “A number of years ago,” Kevin said, “we started donating 50 pounds of hamburger to the annual car show at the local tavern. They raise money and donate it to needy families. Now we’re up to 180 pounds. There are also local ballparks concession stands where my friends do coaching and we like to provide hamburger to them. These donations in turn help drive sales.”
These are the rewards of spending a lifetime organically managing a piece of land and growing roots in the same place you were born. Provide for the land and it will provide for you, hopefully both emotionally and financially. There isn’t enough time in a farmer’s life for all their hopes and grandiose dreams to be fulfilled so a generational continuum seems the ideal progression for a dairy farm. In 2007, Kevin married Lynn, a farm girl who had a seven year old son, Brent. On June 18th, 2014, Brent Schultz, age 16, was killed in a car accident with his best friend. His obituary explained that “Brent served as an officer of the Kewaskum FFA and was member of the New Fane Kettle Riders Snowmobile Club, Sundown Coon Hunters and Trinity Lutheran Church in Dundee. He was an avid hunter and fisherman and will fondly be remembered for his big heart, his dimpled smile and the love he had for his truck and country music.”
“Brent turned sixteen on Monday, got his driver’s license on Tuesday, and was killed on Wednesday. We were gearing up towards his future with buildings and everything. I don’t know if he would have milked, he probably would have raised steers. A lot has changed since then,” Kevin said with deep sorrow. Farmers are deluged with setbacks, challenges and obstacles in the forms calamitous weather, break-downs, health and financial problems. These daily stresses on a farm are assumed as a risk of the trade but the disruption of what seems so natural, the passing on of your lifetime of hard work to your kin, is tragedy in its purest form. “It’s a surprise you never expect,” mourned Kevin, “no graduation, no grandchildren, no wedding, none of that. It’s all zero.”
KT Organic Farms Farm Tractor and Storage barns
The work-hungry, demanding nature of a farm may be a reprieve from grief but without an heir compelling you to further improve and shape your small piece of the earth for future generations, a farm can become a lonesome endeavor. Despite the Thull’s enormous loss it is their nature to continue looking forward. “I am only 50 years old,” Kevin spoke thoughtfully on the future of the farm, but “I didn’t want to wait until I was sixty. I thought it would be a lot easier to identify someone and adapt to one another’s needs over time.”
And so, Kevin and Lynn are in the process of transferring the farm to a team of brothers. “We have boys that want to farm organically in the worst way. They both have two jobs now and are saving money and want to put money down,” Kevin explained. The transfer is expected to take five to ten years. The tentative plan is for the brothers, whom the Thull’s know well, to buy the cows within five years, and then rent the machinery and land for the next five years. The brothers will also be given the option to buy the equipment with the acquisition of the land coming in the fifteen year range. In September, Kevin and Lynn closed on a lake house about twenty minutes from the farm and Kevin joked that now “we can go on vacation between chores.” Their plan is to eventually move to the lake.
Each day on the farm is the same but is also marked by noticeable and discernible changes. The farmer is consumed by tilling, seeding, milking, handling manure, feeding calves, cleaning barns but superimposed upon this is progress that often seems to come so slowly that it’s difficult to remember when it happened or that it was your design. New buildings emerge, different crops are explored, the herd expands, the best crop of corn ever is grown, pastures and soil improve, and equipment comes and goes. The long-view farmer is always striving, yearning to do justice to the multi-dimensional organism that is a dairy farm. Hurricanes and drought can be prepared for, ice storms and collapsing barns too. Regardless of the diligent long-view some moments of time though, like the death of a child, can never be prepared for. Still, the Thull’s forge onward and forward toward keeping their farm viable for the next generation though sadly it is not their own blood.
It’s not to be forgotten that despite organic dairy’s steady growth in the marketplace, organic dairy families are a unique part of rural America. Kevin doesn’t anticipate the growth of organic dairy in his small part of Wisconsin and noted, “I think 10-15 years ago is when we saw the greatest shift by conventional producers to organic. More of the flip side seems to be going on around here, conventional farms expanding and expanding. There are two 3,000 cow dairies within five or six miles of here.”
Head back towards Kewaskum on State Road 28 after a brisk autumn visit to Kettle Moraine State Forest. Slow down and wave your hand at Kevin on a tractor as he goes about the work of putting up the fifth and final cutting of alfalfa before winter and imagine him as a young man driving these same roads. He’s dedicated his life working the land for not only his own gain but to the benefit of the soil, the crops and the cows, and ultimately his community. “Eventually the world might starve,” Kevin mused, “because the food being produced isn’t healthy for the people.” What will become of this dedication and passion when the Thull’s eventually make the move to their new home? Kevin chuckled, “you know those brothers we’re going to transfer the farm to? Well, they already asked me if I’d work for them.”
Kevin Thull can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: to Featured Farms on Tue, Nov 24, 2015
Updated: Tue, Nov 24, 2015