July 8, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
Family keeps farm legacy alive
ELLSWORTH, Wis. – When chores are done at night, Mark and Mary Erlandson sit in their lawn chairs and survey their farm. The scene consists of Guernsey cows on pasture, chickens roosting for the night and crops swaying in the breeze.
“I like farming because our relaxation is to sit here at night,” Mary said. “People don’t understand the peacefulness of just being home.”
Mark and Mary milk 26 Guernsey cows near Ellsworth with the help of their grown children, Josh and Karine. Another son, Jerad, lives nearby as well.
Having raised their children on the farm, Mark and Mary found themselves at a crossroads in 2004 when all three kids were in college and unable to help with farm work. Mark found it difficult to manage the chores with balancing his job off the farm, and Mary was managing an in-home day care business. They made the decision to liquidate the herd to better manage the workload.
Josh was a senior in college at the time and made it clear he wanted to continue the dairy operation after college. Mark and Mary told Josh they would calve the heifers in and resume milking if he was able to help with chores after graduating. Josh was able to get a job as a teacher in Ellsworth, just 8 miles from the farm.
“Luckily enough, the creamery would still take our milk, so we started out with six cows and then 10, and now we’re back,” Mark said. “I don’t know if (the creamery) would even do that anymore.”
Today, Josh lives in a house they built on the corner of the farm property and does almost all of the morning milking. Karine handles most of the afternoon milking. Every morning, Mark gets the cows in from the pasture and the milkhouse set up by about 5 a.m. Josh comes to milk while Mark feeds the cows, cleans the barn and feeds calves and heifers. They both manage to get all the chores done and leave for work before 7:30 in the morning.
Karine’s young daughter attends Mary’s day care on the farm and enjoys extra time with her grandma while Karine does the afternoon milking. The siblings switch off morning milkings every other weekend, and another part-time employee milks twice a week.
The farm consists of 160 acres of cropland. The Erlandsons have found a sweet spot of owning equipment and hiring out custom work to get the crops planted and harvested each year. Mark owns a corn planter in shares with a friend, and all the corn is no-till planted. Soybeans are custom planted, and the neighbors custom harvest all the crops.
“We basically have a baler and a manure spreader,” Mark said. “I also still have an old M International, and I still use it.”
Cows are on pasture with rotational grazing throughout the summer. In the winter, they are fed hay and shell corn.
Mark and Mary continue their simple methods of farming as a way to honor their history and provide a unique experience for their grandchildren. Their history goes back to when Mark was just 13 years old in 1975.
At the time, Mark was helping his grandmother and uncle on their farm when he convinced them to let him take springing heifers home. By the end of eighth grade, Mark was shipping canned milk from his herd of seven cows that he housed in his dad’s old hog barn.
“They would stop and pick up 150 pounds of milk that I sold in cans,” Mark said. “I was getting $150 to $300 milk checks every two weeks. That’s not bad for 1978.”
Mark filed his first income tax return in 1976 when he was 14 years old.
Using Surge bucket milkers, Mark did all the milking himself, and by the time he was in high school, he was up to 13 cows. He was 16 when he decided he needed a bulk tank and purchased one at an auction that he attended by himself. He also grew his herd by attending auctions and buying the cheapest cows he could find with which to get started.
After high school, Mark and Mary married in 1981. Mark continued milking cows while Mary started her in-home day care, which she continues to operate 41 years later. Mark began working for the neighbor, John (Bud) Solvenson. Eventually, they purchased Solvenson’s farm and cows in 1993 and continued their dairy life next door to Mark’s parents’ farm.
With their three children growing up alongside the day care kids, farm life was a happy and chaotic time for Mark and Mary’s family. When the day care children went home for the day, the Erlandson kids would help Mark in the barn.
With a plethora of history and memories behind them, Mark and Mary credit the continued legacy of the farm to their kids.
“Without them, we couldn’t do it anymore,” Mark said.
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