The smell of pancakes and sawdust was in the air as I walked toward the large machine shed on the Nate and Karen Kling farm in rural Taylor on June 2.
Volunteers were busy directing cars and walking paths were lined with wood shavings. It was the 37th annual Jackson County dairy breakfast.
If you’ve never eaten breakfast on a farm before, this is the month to do it.
The tradition of Wisconsin dairy breakfasts is in full swing as part of June Dairy Month. Each weekend this month there are opportunities across the state to visit a farm, eat breakfast and learn about how today’s dairy operations are run.
Even though Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms in 2017, there were still 8,801 active cow dairy farms in the state as of Jan. 1. While most dairy farms have gotten larger, they are still nearly all family-owned businesses. Clark County leads the state with 823 dairy farms.
In my home county of Jackson, there are 137 cow dairy farms. Our family never hosted a dairy breakfast but my folks did host a twilight meeting once. We cleaned, polished, cut weeds and made the farm look as pretty as it ever has. The meeting was hosted in the large machine shed.
I know how much work the host family — with an assist from local organizations like dairy promotions committees — has to do to get the farm ready.
Machine sheds — like the one used by the Klings — are built for machinery, so much has to be vacated to accommodate chairs, tables and large pancake griddles like the one brought in by the Mindoro Lions Club. The club for years makes the rounds at breakfasts in the region, cooking up its delicious hot flapjacks.
Other tents are erected, portable restrooms are installed and signage is placed. It’s a massive undertaking to turn a business into a temporary location to host and serve thousands of customers in a few hours.
One of the biggest challenges is parking. Often the host family will take the first cutting of hay from a field or designate a field that will be plowed up after the event. Sometimes breakfast offer bus shuttles from designated parking areas.
And of course the work must continue — cows still need to be milked and chores need to be done.
The Klings had some experience, having hosted the 2006 county breakfast. They purchased the family land in 2001 after it had been founded by Nathan’s grandparents Robert and Edith Kling in 1960.
The farm now includes a freestall barn replacing the hoop-style barn, adding room to house 200 cows. It has waterbeds, a sprinkler system to cool the cows and a gravity-flow system for manure.
The Klings — with the assist of their three children Grace, Jacob, and Justin and three full-time employees — milk 250 cows and use rotational grazing. The farm is certified organic.
Of course one cannot have a dairy breakfast without lots of cheese, milk and ice cream.
At this breakfast, members of the Black River Falls FFA were handing out jars of cream with instructions on how to make butter — which required 10 minutes of vigorous shaking. There was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on, as Jerry Lee Lewis would say.
I was a part of a group of local vendors displaying their wares, including local farm-to-market businesses promoting meat, cheese, soaps, honey and other services. I was promoting our grass-fed Scottish Highland beef and Scottish Blackface lamb as well as our farm-fresh eggs, bed and breakfast, winery and wedding venue.
(Note to self: The next time you bring wine as part of a display, get the proper licensing to serve samples. Many Wisconsinites carry wine openers and want to use them.)
The great thing about farm breakfasts is the family-friendly atmosphere. There was a pedal tractor pull for kids, horse-drawn wagon rides, music, farm tours and plenty of animals.
A brief thunderstorm that moved through did little to dampen the event. Everyone dashed for cover for a few minutes and then the rain stopped. A couple of skid steer scoops of fresh wood shavings were placed in some wet spots and the fun resumed.
The Wisconsin dairy industry continues to change. The days of the smaller dairy farms are gone, as the size of the farms continues to grow. But Wisconsin dairy farmers continue to prove that they are proficient in what they do, as the volume of milk grows.
Whether you grew up on a farm or you want to see how today’s dairy farmers operate, I encourage you to take part in a farm breakfast. We should all support our farm families.
Besides, chances are you’ll catch up with old friends. And in the spirit of community gatherings, I’ll bet you’ll make some new ones as well.