When the La Crosse County dairy breakfast committee decided Monday to cancel the annual dairy breakfast due to a lack of host farms, committee member Louisa Peterson cast the only vote to keep the event in the hopes that they’d find a venue last minute.
When news of the canceled breakfast hit Facebook Tuesday, it generated a torrent of comments expressing everything from promises to drink more milk and eat more cheese to support for farmers and sadness that a cherished annual family outing was no longer happening.
By Wednesday, Peterson felt she had to do something to save the dairy breakfast.
“It’s a storied tradition,” said Peterson, of Creamery Creek Holsteins in Bangor and secretary of the La Crosse County Dairy Promotion Group. “It’s unacceptable to let it go.”
Peterson asked her husband and their business partners about hosting again, though it’s unprecedented for a farm to hold the dairy breakfast back-to-back, and brought her proposal to the committee that evening. By Thursday, the dairy breakfast had been reinstated.
“It was short and sweet,” Peterson said. “Everyone was on board.”
Though Creamery Creek Holsteins has 11 weeks and two days to prepare for the June 15 breakfast — less time than last year — Peterson said many of the logistics remain the same, and they haven’t planted on the nine acres they used before to provide parking for the event.
“It’s important to connect consumers with the producers,” Peterson said. “It’s our goal to give people that on farm opportunity to connect what’s in the glass to what’s on the farm.”
But while this year’s dairy breakfast is back, the circumstances behind its initial cancellation remain.
Wisconsin lost 691 dairy farms in the past year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another 127 dairy farms have disappeared since the start of 2019.
There are currently 64 dairy herds in La Crosse County, down from 96 herds in 2014. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin milk prices was $16.20 per 100 pounds of milk in January, down from $19.30 per 100 pounds in January 2017. For reference, 100 pounds of milk is about 11.5 gallons of milk.
“There’s so much — I hate to use the word depression — but it’s a depressing market right now,” dairy breakfast committee member Melissa Schaub said.
And it’s not just La Crosse.
Although the Vernon County dairy breakfast is a go, Monroe County is still searching for a host farm this year.
There’s not a lot of interest in hosting “with (the) economy the way it is for farming right now,” said Niel Friske, one of the dairy breakfast board members.
Trempealeau County is also trying to secure a host after its original host had to back out, said Trempealeau County Dairy Promotion committee member Eric Schaffner.
The county traditionally hasn’t had problems finding a host farm, but fewer farms, low commodity prices and mounting repair costs from snow damage after a rough winter mean less income for farmers to spend on getting their farms dairy breakfast-ready, Schaffner said.
Jackson County has found a host, but “it was a struggle,” said breakfast chair Max Hart, also citing economics. “We always try to get one at least nine months ahead of the time and it came down to the wire.”
Hosting a dairy breakfast — inviting thousands of people to show up on a single morning to eat pancakes, scrambled eggs and a multitude of dairy products — is a big commitment.
To find a host for this year, the La Crosse County committee started with a five-year-old list of about 100 dairy farms in La Crosse County, Schaub said.
“As we were going through the list, there were five or six that we knew were selling out or had sold this past week,” Schaub said. “The farms that are still running are running on a whim and a prayer.”
When farms said no, their top reason for declining was that they couldn’t shoulder the extra labor and costs of hosting, Schaub said. “The farmers have so many bigger problems that they don’t want to focus on this right now.”
Perhaps it takes something as drastic as canceling the dairy breakfast for people to understand what farmers are going through, she said.
In Vernon County, Dale and Brenda Torgerson are hosting the dairy breakfast on their 40-cow farm for the first time.
It took a lot of convincing for him to say yes, Dale said. “I made it clear I have no money to spend on this and I’m not going to. It’s just not there. I’m not going to do unnecessary stuff to make it look like a fake farm.”
However, Dale hopes that hosting the dairy breakfast will help them find a market for their milk. They’ve been trying to go organic since 2014 because they weren’t making money from producing conventional milk, Dale said.
By opening his farm to people through the breakfast, he said he hopes that people will better understand the difficulties small family farms face.
“I want them to see we’re an average family trying to make it on a small farm, which is very hard to do,” Dale said. “It’s taken a toll. It just wears on you. My wife works two jobs. I work off the farm doing construction. It takes every bit of that money to keep surviving this way.”