Colby area dairyman redefines ‘family farm’ for 21st century
If your idea of a dairy farmer in the 21st century consists of a man sitting on his three legged stool and hand milking a cow in a quaint red barn, then you’ve clearly never met Jeremy Haas.
Haas is working hard to change the public’s mind on what it means to be a dairy farmer in the 21st century, and that means utilizing the latest technology to get the biggest bang for his buck.
“Technology has changed how we do everything these days,” Haas says. “Why wouldn’t it change the dairy and farming industry too?”
Jeremy’s parents, Leonard and Mary Haas, began the farm in the mid 1970’s, and he and his siblings grew up working on the farm, which rests on 200 acres just outside Colby near Cherokee Park.
Haas graduated from Colby High School in 2002, and at that time he had no intentions to follow in his parents’ footsteps, choosing instead to obtain a degree in environmental engineering from UW- Platteville.
Haas spent a semester in Germany, travelled through Europe, and upon graduation, found work with an engineering firm based in Baraboo. However, he quickly discovered that rather than helping farmers and communities with their problems, he spent most of his time crunching numbers and pushing piles of paper and sorting through red tape.
“It seemed the higher up I got, the more time I spent behind a desk,” Haas said. “You’re writing all these reports but there’s nothing at the end of the day where you felt like you really accomplished something.” By April of 2009, Haas was beginning to become burned out with his engineering career. It just so happened that right around this time Haas’ father Leonard informed the family he was going to sell the farm, and if Jeremy or his siblings were interested, they should speak up.
Of course, as anyone who owns a business will tell you, timing is everything and with the country in the midst of the Great Recession, Haas continued to log around 30 hours a week at his engineering job. But by 2016, he took the plunge and devoted himself full-time to the family farm and its crops and cows.
Now Haas finds himself raising three small children — Emma, Kaden and Landon — with his wife Katie, all while running the family farm and ushering it into the modern age.
“I was still milking in a tie stall barn, around 50 cows, and just slowly making the progression of upgrading stalls and increasing production and profitability,” Haas says about his first years.
But in 2016, Haas made the complete switch to robotics, and like other dairy farms in the area, he doubled the number of cows he milks, with the family farm now holding 150 — over 100 more than what his parents began with.
“One of the reasons that I went robotics on it is I wanted to achieve profitability. I thought that would be a hard thing to do in a tie stall setting,” Haas said, explaining his shift to more tech heavy methods. “At that time, I was milking three times a day, and I had a hard time keeping consistent labor around. We went robotic, doubled our cow numbers, and our milk production increased by more than double.”
Now Haas is the only one working the farm while his wife continues to work as a school teacher in Edgar. But just because it’s a one-man show doesn’t mean it’s not a family farm.
“I think it maybe takes a little bit for people to wrap their head around . . . and some people are like ‘This is a confined operation, that’s not a family farm.’ But this is a family operation even though its confined and it’s 150 cows. It’s just different,” he said. “We’re relying on more mechanical means rather than the traditional methods.”
Haas’ background in engineering definitely helps, where he’s able to run multiple spreadsheets and take stock of the numbers and increases in production. He’s also flexible enough to recognize other trends in the industry, utilizing no-till methods on his farmland for his beans, corn and hay. He’s also adopting more environmentally friendly practices as he keeps his eye towards the future, and his children’s future.
“I very much believe — and this is not a knock on other farmers — but I firmly believe in my heart, we as an industry cannot continue to till every single acre and then have it rain and then have gullies that form and then our water sheds are chocolate brown,” Haas says.
“We cannot continue to do that either from an economical standpoint or community standpoint. . . I want to see something that my kids can take over someday if they choose. We’re here for 70 years, a blink of an eye. We can’t wreck something that we need.”
There’s also been other wrinkles to overcome, such as the recent COVID-19 virus, and while this caused a good amount of stress for several weeks, Haas weathered that storm just as he has every other setback and hurdle.
“COVID and the resulting economy shutdown created probably some of the most turbulent prices that we have seen,” Haas said about the recent global pandemic. “It was almost depressing because I’m making a product every day, and spending 10 hours to do the best that we can on it, and it was worth less than what I had stuck into it. But things have since gotten rosier.”
That ability to be resourceful, to make wise decisions and keep the tradition of dairy farming alive in Wisconsin is something that drives Haas, and all farmers in America’s Dairyland. The job can be dirty at times, Haas concedes, but today’s farmer has come a long way from their humble beginnings.
“Get rid of your ideas and stereotypes of farmers,” Haas says firmly. “We are professionals and we take pride in what we do. We’re providing a product that’s a vital part of the food chain. We take pride in doing the best that we can, and those images of sloppy facilities detracts from that. Anyone that is still in this industry is incredibly resourceful and intelligent and is driven and proud of what we do as an industry.”