Not long ago, Rich and Carol Radtke were on a bit of a roll. They had graduated from the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course and felt the program had provided them a solid basis for developing a profitable farming operation on land they and their three children moved to in 2008. Before taking the class, they had gotten the land, which they rent from a family trust, certified organic and had set up a rotational grazing system.
By early last year, they had a USDA beginning farmer loan and were in the midst of remodeling an old barn so it could serve as a milking parlor for a herd of cows they were ready to bring onto the farm. In short, they were closing in on their ultimate dream: operating a grass-based certified organic dairy.
But on March 4, 2014, disaster struck. That barn they were remodeling burned to the ground, taking with it thousands of dollars worth of equipment, as well as the money the family had invested in remodeling it. To make things worse, they later discovered the barn wasn’t insured. It appeared the family’s farming dreams had gone up in smoke.
“We thought, ‘We’re headed to town—this whole thing is over,’ ” recalls Rich.
A little over a year after that fateful fire, the Radtkes, while not exactly on a roll, are also not headed to town. In fact, they are back on track toward their ultimate goal of making a living on the land while helping feed people healthy food. One morning in early February, Carol and Rich took a break after the morning milking to reflect on the fact that just a few days prior they had shipped their first load of milk to the Organic Valley Cooperative.
“We’re selling our milk and people are eating cheese and butter made from our milk,” says Rich while sitting in his living room, a new milking parlor visible through a picture window. As he says this, it’s clear he’s barely able to hide his amazement, given where the family was at a year ago.
The Radtkes rose from the ashes through a combination of innovative fundraising, creativity, hard work and plain old grit. But the couple maintains that the glue holding this comeback effort together is the people outside the operation who believe in the idea that having more family farmers on the land is good for the community.
When they first moved to the 159-acre farm in western Minnesota’s Kandiyohi County, the Radtkes literally had to start building the operation from the ground up. Rich was born on the farm and spent his younger years there, but by 2008 the former dairy and crop operation had not been a home for people in quite some time. It had been rented out for cropping and years of intensive tillage had taken a toll on the thin, sandy soil, which is highly erosive; even the pastureland was in poor shape, overgrown with weeds and invasives.
While living in Raymond, Minn., the Radtkes had grown a big garden and raised chickens and turkeys while pursuing various lines of work. Rich has done web design, worked as a disc jockey at a radio station, sold used city buses on eBay and run a small parking lot painting company. Carol, who has a nursing degree, has worked in home health care. But their small experiment growing their own food gave them the farming bug, although Rich was certain he was immune to one strain of the contagion.
“Kids from dairy farms either stay on the dairy farm or run like hell,” says Rich. “I ran like hell.”
But the Radtkes realized they needed to bring livestock onto the farm both for the soil disturbance and the manure-activated biological activity needed to improve it to the point where it would provide a sustainable living. They obtained USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding to put in fencing for a rotational grazing system on 65 acres and began using goats and a neighbor’s beef herd to clear out the weeds. In recent years they’ve improved the pastures to the point where they were able to add a month to the grazing season and more than triple the number of animal units that run on each acre. In 2011, the land became certified organic.
By the time they had taken LSP’s Farm Beginnings course in Hutchinson, Minn, during the winter of 2011-2012, the couple was convinced that the class would serve as simply a way to fine-tune their farming goals and they’d be off and running upon graduation.
“We thought it was going to be a ready-made, this-is-easy kind of class,” says Rich. “It turns out it is anything but a helping hand. You’ve got to work. You can’t start a business without a plan.”
During the class, established farmers and other agricultural professionals from the region presented on how to set financial, environmental and quality of life goals and develop business and marketing plans that would help reach them.
The Radtkes particularly like the holistic planning aspect of Farm Beginnings, which requires participants to constantly reevaluate whether particular decisions will keep the farm on track toward reaching overall, pre-determined goals.
“Without that you’re just aimlessly going out there and making decisions, hoping you’ll get the outcome you need,” says Rich.
Carol says it was critical to take the class together—they shared a common goal of making a living on the farm, but differed slightly on the best way to attain that.
“Farm Beginnings helped us narrow down what enterprises were a good fit for our goals,” she says.
Through the discussion groups, presentations and homework, the Radtkes slowly came to a realization that surprised the couple, given Rich’s earlier pronouncements of what was off-limits: the enterprise that made the most sense for improving the soil and providing a steady enough income for the family to stay on the farm was dairying.
Rich is 50 and Carol 48—they are well aware that getting into a physically demanding career like dairying at their age is not easy. “We’re a little younger than the average dairy farmer,” Rich says with a laugh.
All joking aside, the couple has approached this enterprise with one eye on how to make it pay and another on how to do it in a way that it doesn’t exact a heavy price on their bodies. Farm Beginnings helped them research the organic dairy market, which has avoided the wild price swings of its conventional counterpart in recent years, and Kent Solberg of the Sustainable Farming Association’s Minnesota Dairy Initiative took them on tours of dairies of various sizes which have found ways to reduce the labor involved with managing and milking cows.
Resiliency & Recovery
Given all that careful planning and hard work, the 2014 barn fire came as a particularly tough blow. But after the initial shock, the resilient Radtkes bounced back.
Some friends suggested they try an online fund-raising campaign. Rich, who administers a raw milk Facebook page, got the word out about their situation via various social networks. Carol designed and sold t-shirts with sayings like, “I helped build a barn” on them. The response was overwhelming. Contributions began pouring in from around the region—even relatives from Sweden helped out. A local business owner donated tens of thousands of dollars to the cause because he wanted to see a sustainable dairy farm get started in the area.
“I was amazed at the amount of people that stepped up and said, ‘Hey, we want to help you. You guys are really trying to do something important,’ ” says Carol.
Within a few months they had raised enough money to build a small parlor. The Radtkes estimate that of the $61,000 it cost to build the structure, over 80 percent was covered by in-kind and cash donations.
“The main thing they gave us was hope,” says Rich of this community of supporters.
It’s also given hope to the next generation. Launching the Prairies Edge Organic Family Farm dairy has gotten Carol and Rich’s 16-year-old daughter, Madison, excited about pursuing a career in farming. She’s involved in 4-H and FFA and has talked about eventually starting a goat dairy on the farm after she graduates from high school in 2016.
When they designed their new milking parlor, they did so not only with cost in mind, but also ease of operation—after all, they didn’t get any younger during the year they had their dairy farming dream deferred. The parlor, which is housed in a modest 32 x 48 steel building, is based on a low-cost pit design out of Iowa State University that boasts a 2:1 labor efficiency over a stall barn in typical situations. So far, it’s lived up to its billing on the Radtke farm—one person can milk 21 cows in less than 35 minutes.
On a wintry morning, the couple shows off their own small modifications that make the parlor even more labor efficient. Rich hits a garage door remote that slides the cow exit door back and forth. “That makes a two- person job a one-person job,” he says as a blast of February air knifes in. They wanted the parlor to be small and efficient enough that one person could manage it, but also flexible enough to accommodate more cows per hour as they grow.
“Our business plan is to pay it off,” says Rich of the parlor, adding that for bigger dairies in the neighborhood that have recently built multi-million dollar confinement facilities, “Their business plan is to stay ahead of the payments.”
Adhering to their holistic planning strategy, the Radtkes don’t buy any equipment unless it contributes directly to their ultimate goal. Their implement line consists of an old 1850 Oliver tractor and a skid steer loader, and they hire their haymaking done. “We hay three times a year and it’s a half million dollars of equipment here and gone in less than 24 hours,” says Rich. Last year the custom haying service cost approximately $3,000; this year, it will be considerably more, as they have added more hay acres.
The Radtkes have a lot of work to do before the farm evolves into a consistently profitable enterprise. They want to eventually milk at least 35 cows, which is what their land base can handle. Rich substitute milks for a neighboring dairy and Carol provides home care for their 29-year-old handicapped daughter, Chastiti’ (they also have a 25-year-old son, Austin).
Their hope is not only to succeed enough to stay on the farm and support the family, but to prove to all the people who believe in them that such confidence is well placed.
“We couldn’t have done it without the connections we made, the Farm Beginnings training and people saying, ‘You know, it’s not over yet. Just hang in there,’ ” says Rich. “This is one way a community let a family stay on the farm and now we can build something from it.”
The Radtkes welcome inquiries about starting a dairy and are willing to host barn tours. They can be contacted at www.prairiesedgefarms.com or 320-599-4142.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.