June 28, 2021 at 2:12 p.m.
KIMBALL, Minn. – When Kevin Donnay left for college, the last thing on his mind was returning to the farm and building a career in the barn. Yet, a realized desire to milk cows and raise his family a certain way brought the fourth-generation dairy farmer home.
“When I went off to school, I smiled knowing I milked my last cow,” Kevin said. “Two months later, I missed this farm and lifestyle, and knew when I finished school, I wanted to come back.”
Kevin’s decision aided in his family’s dairy turning 101 years old this year.
Kevin and his wife, Erin, and their six children – Emma, 16, Ellie, 14, Elizabeth, 12, Ryan, 10, Timmy, 9, and Adam, 6 – milk 60 cows on their organic dairy farm in Stearns County near Kimball.
The Donnay family was recognized for their century farm status last year by the county and then again this year by the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, a recognition that was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Yes, we’re the family that is honored, but we can only take partial credit,” said Kevin of his farm’s centennial. “We’re blessed with the family and their faith that came before us and also the great neighbors and community. They all deserve credit too.”
Kevin and Erin have farmed the Donnay land since 1999.
While Kevin was away at college, his father, Robert, began making management decisions that would allow for the farm to transition from conventional to organic.
In 1999, Kevin returned to the family enterprise to dairy farm in partnership with his brother. A year later, they became certified organic dairy producers. Then, in 2002, Kevin and Erin became sole owners of the farm.
“It’s a blessing to think of my parents’ 11 kids, I was the one who ended up here,” Kevin said. “My parents and grandparents did their best to take care of this land, and I think they’d be proud, and maybe even ecstatic, to see the farm what it is today.”
The Donnay farm was purchased by Kevin’s grandparents, Jake and Lizzie, in 1920. Kevin’s grandfather first farmed with his father at another location. Like many during that time, the Donnay family raised an assortment of livestock, including cattle, chickens, pigs and even bees.
“They always had milk cows,” Kevin said. “That was true for my parents too.”
Kevin’s parents, Robert and Ethel, purchased the farm in 1967. Over the years, Kevin’s father focused on growing the family’s dairy enterprise.
“He had an opportunity to buy retiring farmers’ land knowing he had two sons interested in coming back,” Kevin said.
“We have to thank Robert for doing that, and Kevin’s great-grandfather,” she said. “He helped finance the purchase of this farm. He trusted his son to make it go and that it would not fail.”
When Kevin and Erin became involved in the dairy, they knew continued growth of the dairy herd would not be a sustainable option for their family nor their intended way of life.
“We needed to find an avenue of dairy farming that didn’t require expanding,” Erin said. “We wanted to stay small, so we focused on grazing.”
In Kevin and Erin’s 21 years of dairy farming, they have made several decisions to facilitate their farming philosophy.
The couple transitioned the Holstein herd to crossbreds and most recently incorporated the use of nurse cows to raise their youngstock to 6 months old. They have sold equipment and taken down silos to reflect the dairy’s grazing focus. They also retrofitted a parlor into the stanchion barn.
In the coming years, the Donnays will look to make more changes to reflect their children’s interest.
“We’re in our middle years,” Kevin said. “Right now, we’re keeping on what we feel is best for our family, and we’ll evaluate the farm for the kids as they get older.”
As the children have grown, they have each taken on small responsibilities with the dairy, helping with fieldwork and preparing the parlor for milking.
“It’s been a blessing to have them be around the dairy, and watch them grow and learn,” Erin said. “Every kid has taken on some responsibility, knowing the job has to get done.”
They are also incredibly involved in the 4-H organization, taking 96 projects to the Meeker County Fair in 2019, their church and community.
“We live by the philosophy of Luke 12:48, ‘To whom much is given, much will be required,’” Erin said. “We’ve been blessed with opportunity, education and talent, and now there’s a willingness to do something with all of that.”
While the Donnays’ farm is officially recognized as a century farm this year, the St. Cloud Diocese had a Mass for century farms last year in the nearby town of Farming. At the Mass, all Stearns County century farms were celebrated.
It was milestone Kevin wished his late father could have experienced.
“It was bittersweet,” said Erin of the celebration. “The farm reached that milestone and we knew how much Robert would have enjoyed seeing that. Kevin’s mother was there, and we could feel Dad’s presence at the Mass.”
That moment reflected Kevin and Erin’s humbleness in being honored for the family’s farming legacy.
“Being a century farm isn’t because of us,” Kevin said. “Our neighbors and family before us are all a part of our family history, of this farm’s history. And because of that, there’s a great sense of pride in the family farm.”