November 14, 2020 at 6:07 p.m.

Kempen family celebrates 100-plus years in agriculture

From poultry to dairy, farm survives many changes
Organic dairy farmers Tony and Terri Kempen milk approximately 60 cows near Brillion, Wisconsin. The Kempen farm was recognized as a century farm this year.  PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Organic dairy farmers Tony and Terri Kempen milk approximately 60 cows near Brillion, Wisconsin. The Kempen farm was recognized as a century farm this year. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART

By Stacey [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

    BRILLION, Wis. – Tony and Terri Kempen were honored to be recognized as a century farm this year. However, after a little digging during the application process, the Kempens discovered their farm has been in the family for well over a century.
    “We thought the farm was 100 years old when we applied for the centennial award,” Terri said. “But then we realized it went back another generation.”
    Founded in 1891, the farm is celebrating 129 years of Kempen ownership. Tony and Terri value the farm’s rich history, which has seen a shift from chickens to cows and conventional to organic over the years.
    “Nothing is original to the farm except the water pump in the middle of the yard, but it doesn’t work,” said Tony, the fourth generation to run the Kempen farm.
    After graduating from high school, Tony worked at an outdoor power equipment company for four years. Proud to continue his family’s farming legacy, Tony took over the farm in 1981 – the same year he and Terri married. In 1987, the Kempens purchased the farm and have lived there for 33 years. An organic farm since 2004, the Kempens milk around 60 cows and farm 140 acres near Brillion.
    “My dad was very forward with biological farming,” Tony said. “And since Terri and I were so close to being organic, the guy we get fertilizer and mineral from encouraged us to go for it.”
    Tony and Terri saw the switch to organic as a lifesaver.
    “It’s been great,” Terri said. “We ship our milk to Organic Valley, which has been very stable and solid through the years. Our banker told us at one point, ‘If it weren’t for organic, I’d probably tell you to quit.’”
    The Kempens said health problems in the herd are few and far between.
    “We only have one emergency call to the vet per year, if that,” Tony said. “Pregnancy checks and dehorning are the only items on our vet bill. We also like that by being organic, we don’t have to worry about touching or breathing anything that will hurt us, our children or our grandchildren. There are no drugs or chemicals being used here.”  
    The Kempen farm started out as a chicken and egg operation and saw its biggest changes occur in 1958, 1985 and 2001. Three different houses have graced the property at one time or another as well as various barns and buildings. In 1958, Tony’s dad, Russell, converted the farm into a dairy operation and built a dairy barn with help from Tony’s two uncles. He also put in a Surge double-3 straight line milking parlor – the first of three parlors built in Calumet County that year.
    “My dad was pretty progressive,” Tony said.
    His dad also built a freestall barn which the Kempens use today. Originally a pack barn, wooden free stalls were eventually added, and 10 years ago, Tony put in new stalls with mattresses. In 1985, his dad put up a big silo because he knew Tony was going to be taking over. Tony’s father remained working on the farm until he had a stroke in 1998.
    In 2001, a fire destroyed the barn and parlor built by Tony’s dad. The Kempens proceeded to build a new barn within the same footprint. They also built a new double-8 swing parlor and made an addition to the freestall heifer barn. New electrical was installed on the farm 15 years ago due to stray voltage issues in the area.
    “It was miserable when we had stray voltage,” Tony said. “We hated to go out in the barn in the morning because we didn’t know what we were going to see. Milk was maxed out at 65 pounds per cow per day. We had health problems, mastitis and bad feet. When we put up isolators, things got better.”
    The Kempens’ mixed breed herd contains Holstein, German Fleckvieh, Jersey, Ayrshire and Brown Swiss blood. Tony said the Fleckvieh cattle serve a dual purpose of both beef and dairy, have a good temperament, great feet and udders, and are better for grazing. Tony said his breeding focuses on legs and feet to ensure compatibility with pasturing.  
    “When we converted to organic, we were going to switch to Brown Swiss for the components,” Tony said. “We bred everything to Swiss for a year and that was the start of diversity around here. But when we got ahold of the calves, we found they were hard to work with. We kept breeding those animals to Swiss but also began mixing in other breeds. We’ve never had a bull here. To settle cows, we try different breeds, and it’s worked really well for us.”
    The Kempens have three children and eight grandchildren. Terri worked off the farm for many years as a secretary at an elementary school. When her daughter had twins, Terri decided to quit her job and take care of her grandchildren instead. The Kempens’ son, Andrew, and their daughter, Amy, and her husband, Jeremy Hunt, live nearby and help on the farm when they can. The Kempens’ grandkids also help with feeding calves and the oldest one helps with milking. Their grandson is also learning to drive tractor.
    However, there is currently no one in line to take over the farm when Tony and Terri retire. Therefore, the end of an era is approaching as the couple sees their dairy farming days coming to an end in the near future.
    “We’re slowing down now,” Tony said. “We’ve stopped raising youngstock and plan to milk cows for only two or three more years.”  
    The Kempens will not be abandoning the farm, however. They plan to work the land for cash cropping and organic soil. They recently lost 65 acres of pasture next door which they had rented for many years to graze their herd. After the owner passed away, her nephew sold the land.
    “Losing that piece of pasture really hurts and has been a factor in our decision to start winding down,” Tony said.
    Tony and Terri are looking forward to having more family time and opportunities to travel when they stop milking. The Kempens have been to Ireland and also like to visit their daughter, Jen, and her husband, Peter Stevens, at least twice a year in Portland, Oregon, where Jen is a physical therapist.
    “Our motto is faith, family, farming – in that order,” Terri said. “That’s what we’ve built our life upon, and we’ll continue to keep the farm in the family for as long as possible, even after the cows have left.”


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