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As 500 Wisconsin farms disappear, a Fremont family battles to keep theirs running amid declining sales

Posted at 4:38 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 17:38:33-05

FREMONT, Wis. (NBC 26) -- The definition of Wisconsin as America's Dairyland is continuously changing, year after year.

"It makes me sick to be darn truthful about it," Hillside Dairy Farm co-owner Mary Rieckmann said.

Mary and her husband John bought their farm in 1964. But times, and their fortunes, have changed.

"Right now, we're in debt for over $5,000 for a light bill," Mary said. "But the only thing that saves us is they can't shut it off."

According to new numbers released by the USDA, in 2020, there were 64,400 total farms throughout the state, which is 500 less than the prior year. Of the ones that closed, 300 of them are considered small operations that make little to no profit, like the Rieckmann's farm.

"They've [farmers] just been fighting like hell to try and keep things going," Mary said. "They're like us. We're not making anything."

And because they're in debt, the Rieckmann's are afraid their dairy farm will close along with the others.

"The feed and the fuel and everything just is skyrocketing," John said. "The milk goes down; it goes the other way."

But over 2,000 farms making over a million in sales each year stayed open. With only around 40 cows, it's been hard for the Rieckmann's to keep up.

"I can't even imagine giving it up," Mary said. "I don't know. Maybe I won't live long enough to see it."

The USDA says over 28,000 Wisconsin farms are either in debt or selling less than $10,000 in product.

"I always said I'd like to see it [the debt] paid before I die," Mary said. "But whether the lord is gonna help me out with that or not, I don't know."

The Rieckmann's say they know the odds are stacked against them to keep their dairy farm running. But that doesn't matter to them.

"I work 16 to 18 hours a day and you try to keep going as much as you can," John said. "I ain't gonna give up."

"You literally have to love farming in order to keep going," Mary said. "It's a hard life, but it's a good life."

If you are interested in finding ways to help, call Hillside Dairy at 920-667-4210.