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GREENWOOD, Wis. – Canicule afterwards a tornado ripped through their dairy farm, disturbing the acme off four atom silos and about antibacterial six buildings, the Nigon ancestors aggregate at the kitchen table.

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Marty and Kathy Nigon, forth with their six developed children, had to accomplish some adamantine decisions on that aftermost Sunday in September 2019.

The ancestors affair lasted about three hours. Tears were allow as raw affect from the confusion converged with a lifetime of acceptable memories on the Clark Canton dairy farm.

“Everybody got to accurate their opinion,” Marty Nigon recalled. “And we all agreed we should anatomy aggregate back.”

It was a attestation to the animation of dairy farmers airtight by accustomed disasters, years of low milk prices, delinquent costs and the pandemic.

“There are two things that will accumulate you farming,” Marty Nigon said his ancestor told him aback he was a boy. “One, you’ve got to absolutely like it. And, two, you’ve consistently got to anticipate abutting year will be better.”

Thousands of ancestors farms like Nigon View Dairy are belief their future, analytic whether they should accumulate activity aback the abutting annular of adamantine times, which never seems far away, could force them out of business.

The collapse of baby farms has been alteration the mural of Wisconsin — actually and figuratively — for years. Abounding accept been accident money or are almost blind on. Aback 2011, the cardinal of dairy farms in the accompaniment has burst added than 43%, a admonition of the abuse that low milk prices, acute antagonism and an oversupplied exchange can administer on acreage families. In 2020, the accompaniment absent about 360 dairy farms, and for the aboriginal time, now has beneath than 7,000 of them.

No one wants to be the bearing that loses the farm, says Chris Rueth, whose ancestors has a 250-cow dairy operation in the Town of Loyal in Clark County.

“It’s in our blood,” he says.

How farmers plan for the years advanced varies widely, depending on their affairs and whether the abutting bearing alike wants to anytime booty over the ancestors business.

When the Rueths accede a above advancement costing hundreds of bags of dollars, it’s for 10 years, not two.

They’re additionally active of not accepting too far advanced of themselves in a business breadth biconcave milk prices, poor acclimate for crops, alike a barter war with China, clean out profits.

Long-term planning has to be choleric with the accepted reality.

“Basically, you accomplish it through abatement harvest,” Rueth said. “Then you attending aback on what you did that year and see what you charge to advance on.”

One affair seems certain. The baby dairy acreage from 10 years ago won’t be about in addition decade if it doesn’t accumulate evolving. Abounding farms bribery amid 50 and 100 beasts are at accident of shutting bottomward because they don’t account from economies of calibration or they can’t acquisition assassin help.

WATCH: America’s Dairyland: The Abutting Generation

“When you attending at the dairy industry, I don’t anticipate baby farmers accept a lot of hope,” said Max Malm, whose ancestors has a 120-cow operation in Loyal.

The big farms “just accumulate accepting bigger and bigger,” he says.

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Still, technology and addition may advice accumulate baby and midsize operations afloat, alike aback added trends are adjoin them.

Malm’s Rolling Acres has invested in robots that milk the beasts whenever they feel like actuality milked, 24 hours a day, abbreviation activity costs and absolution up ancestors associates for added tasks.

One at a time, the beasts airing up to the bribery station, nudge accessible the aboideau and footfall inside. A automatic arm swings down, sanitizes anniversary teat and again attaches laser-guided assimilation cups to abstract the milk. The cow munches on a bite dispensed by the apparatus as an allurement to cooperate.

If article goes wrong, Malm gets an active on his smartphone that identifies the problem. Again he can adjudge whether it’s account bottomward what he’s accomplishing and branch to the barn.

The barn has a apprentice that cruises bottomward the augment lane, dispensing armament with laser-guided precision. The robot’s sensors acquaint with a set of doors that accessible and acquiesce it to access a “kitchen” breadth a computer arrangement measures and mixes the meals.

All this technology comes at a abrupt price, calmly costing a actor dollars for the bribery robots and the barn that houses the system.

“You accept to accept in it and appetite to do this the blow of your life,” Malm said. “I anticipate I’m advantageous my dad and my grandpa embrace it as well.”

Towns like Loyal and Greenwood are spokes in a caster breadth agronomics is the hub. In fact, Clark Canton has added dairy farms than any added canton in Wisconsin. It has 67,000 dairy cows, about alert as abounding beasts as people.

There are 16 processing plants in the breadth that accomplish cheese, adulate and added dairy articles awash about the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars cascade into the bounded abridgement from added than 700 dairy farms.

“I anticipate if all the baby farms go away, our rural communities will go abroad as well,” Malm said.

That doesn’t accept to happen, says Jack Uldrich, a futurist from Minneapolis who says some of the changes occurring in agriculture, including a locally produced aliment movement, favor baby farms.

“This is a huge befalling for dairy farmers because consumers appetite to apperceive breadth their aliment is advancing from. They appetite to apperceive how you’re alleviative your animals, how you’re a abettor of the land, how you’re acknowledging bounded communities,” Uldrich said while on a appointment to Clark County.

“Everyone thinks technology is demography over, but what they’re missing is that bodies are appetite animal connections, and they appetite to abutment baby farmers,” Uldrich said.

He urges association to embrace a artless concern about the apple and notions that may assume crazy to acclimatized adults.

Crunchy cheese? Solid milk? “A lot of acceptable farmers would say that’s ridiculous. But I anticipate kids would say, ‘Hey, acquaint me added about it,’” Uldrich said.

Not continued ago, some farmers apparently absolved “Greek yogurt” as almost a bleep in yogurt sales. Now it represents about 50% of that business. In the brewing industry, some predicted a takeover by huge accumulated interests. Again came an access in advance of ability and microbreweries.

“Keep an accessible mind, break curious, accumulate allurement questions. And if you can’t do it, ask your kids to do it,” Uldrich said. “If you appetite to survive in the future, you charge to accept a beginner’s mind.”

Small dairies will apparently survive if their operating costs are low abundant or they accept a different artefact that fetches a college price. They’ll acceptable addition their assets with addition crops, like hazelnuts, and will use the sun and the wind to accomplish electricity.

Driverless tractors, drones and satellites attractive bottomward on every acreage are activity to be accepted on farms of the future.

Some may alike actualize a approaching out of attenuate air with industrial-scale photosynthesis that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and with sunlight converts it into booze for ammunition and ethylene acclimated to accomplish plastics.

Trade wars and beneath accustomed assets could favor agronomics on a bounded scale.

“We are activity to acknowledgment to baby and medium-size farms that are broadcast throughout the world,” Uldrich said.

In July 2022, Roehl Acres, a Clark Canton dairy acreage run by Dennis and Suzie Roehl, will host Acreage Technology Days, one of the better agronomical shows in the nation.

“I’ve consistently capital to do this,” Dennis Roehl says, abacus that he aboriginal went to the appearance with his father, Lowell, in 1983.

The Roehls accept advised installing robots on their acreage that has a century-old barn.

“Everything’s consistently evolving,” Dennis says. “As continued as we embrace the technology and angle with the times, I anticipate there’s a approaching here.”

After earning a bachelor’s amount in engineering, in 1991 he chose to acknowledgment to the acreage started by his parents rather than accompany a job in the city.

“I adulation aggregate about it,” he says. “I adulation the aroma of fresh-tilled dirt. If you’ve never smelled it, appear out in the bounce and you’ll apperceive what I mean. And again you watch the plants bustling out of the ground. It’s a big activity of accomplishment.”

Marty Nigon and his babe Kristyn on the family’s acreage in Greenwood. (Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, was almighty hot and muggy. Marty and Kathy Nigon were active home from La Crosse that black aback they got the alarm that larboard them shaken.

Their son, Luke, lives in Greenwood. He had heard that a tornado hit the farm, so he rushed out there to analysis the damage.

It was absolutely bad. The acme of the accurate atom silos, not aloof the metal domes, were broken off. Six barrio were heavily damaged.

Luke alleged his parents and approved to adapt them for what they’d anon see that night. “He was emotionally devastated, and aback we got there, I accepted why,” Marty said.

“As we were advancing over the acropolis to the farm, it was dark, so we couldn’t see anything. But I said to my wife, ‘Are you accessible for this?’ Our acreage is not activity to attending the same.”

It was Kathy’s 55th birthday.

One of the silos had burst on the barn, killing three cows. Four heifers were afflicted in a allow that was broken in half. Every architecture was damaged, copse were uprooted and powerlines were down.

Then, neighbors and added farmers started assuming up to help. They acclimated trailers to move the livestock to addition acreage a mile bottomward the road.

“We got the beasts out of this barn about midnight,” Marty said. It was the aboriginal time in 41 years his animals had to be housed on addition else’s property.

The abutting four canicule galvanized the association breadth the Nigons are able-bodied accepted in the Approaching Farmers of America chapter, the schools and by association who buy pumpkins, candied corn, maple abstract and admixture from them.

“I anticipate we had abutting to seven Mennonite churches actuality to help,” Marty said, as 40 to 50 bodies a day converged on the acreage to abetment in the cleanup.

Someone the Nigons didn’t know, from the southern allotment of the state, beatific the ancestors a analysis for $150. Their acreage had been hit by a tornado a year earlier.

The Nigons thanked as abounding bodies as they could, in person, but it wasn’t accessible to ability everyone.

“Whether you helped physically — acrimonious up debris, architecture structures — or emotionally with affectionate words and acts of affection such as budgetary ability or bottomward off food, we acknowledge you all from the basal of our hearts. … We are appreciative to be a allotment of this association of friends, ancestors and neighbors,” the ancestors said on their Facebook page.

Marty has been bribery beasts aback he was 15 and is now 61. His achievement and knees are still in acceptable shape, which is amazing because the assessment that alive about livestock takes on a farmer’s body.

“As continued as I accept my health, which I do, I’m OK,” he says. “I still accept the drive to accumulate accomplishing this.”

He and Kathy accept no ambition of anytime affairs the farm.

“If one of our kids doesn’t appetite it, somehow I’d like to accumulate it in our ancestors for the grandchildren,” Marty says. “Once these farms are sold, you can’t allow to get them back. They’re way too expensive.”

Their babe Kristyn, who accelerating from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls aftermost year with a bachelor’s amount in dairy science, may booty over the acreage someday, but appropriate now she’s alive for an accessories aggregation in Durand.

Kristyn enjoys the cows, alive outdoors and active in the country, but she’s not accessible to booty on the abounding albatross of the ancestors business.

“Especially with the cows, they tie you bottomward every weekend. They’re like kids, but you can’t booty them with you,” she said.

Still, she loves the acreage and cherishes the memories of growing up there. Alike during the years aback milk prices sank or the crops were poor, she didn’t feel the ache her parents charge accept been feeling.

“Through the adamantine times, my mom and dad never showed it,” she said. “I mean, they backward strong.”

This adventure is allotment of a collective activity amid the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee PBS exploring the disturbing dairy industry and its appulse on rural Wisconsin. The Journal Sentinel maintained beat ascendancy of the reporting, which is accurate by grants from the PBS alternation FRONTLINE and the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit journalism organization.

This adventure is allotment of a accord with Milwaukee PBS through FRONTLINE’s Bounded Journalism Initiative, which is adjourned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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