DARLINGTON, Wis. – Thanksgiving did not bring good tiding for 16 farms in southwest Wisconsin. Those dairy producers received the dreaded notice that they were being dropped from the milk market with the Wisconsin Cheese Group as of Jan. 1.
    Included in this were 12 Amish farms, 11 of which had Grade A permits, and four non-Amish farms that were selling milk with Grade B permits.
    Robert Pierce was one of the affected dairy farmers. Pierce milks about 30 cows on his dairy outside Darlington, Wis.
    A problem-solver by nature, Pierce did not waste time in beginning a search for a new market, not only for himself but for his neighbors as well.
    “Two of us that were Grade B, including myself, are almost considered to be seasonal farms, and are too small, especially at this point of the year for most places to want to pick us up,” Pierce said. “The other farm bought more cattle to produce enough to get into a market, but that wasn’t an option for me.”
    Pierce began making calls, looking for a new market. He investigated options of buying a milk truck to create a route for the farms in question since hauling seemed to be a large part of the issue.
    During this time, the affected Amish producers decided to form their own cooperative to create a market for themselves. However, they were not willing to let non-Amish dairy producers join their newly-formed cooperative.
    A solution to the problem seemed to have been found early in December when an Illinois-based cheese plant said it was willing to add farms to its routes provided the farms could reach a production level of 700 pounds of milk per pick-up.
    That relief turned out to be short-lived, as Pierce received another holiday surprise when the plant changed its production requirement to 1,500 pounds of milk per pick-up.
    Of the four non-Amish producers, Pierce was the only one excluded from pick-up with that creamery because of the production requirements.
    “Ironically, I had found a market for the others, but not for myself,” Pierce said. “So I started back on the phone. It’s not necessarily easy to reach people during the holidays.”
     After making many phone calls, Pierce had the fortune to connect with a DFA field representative the Thursday before Christmas. Pierce learned that despite the small size of his herd, DFA would be willing to take his milk if he could obtain Grade A permitting, because they were already picking milk up within 2 miles of his farm.
    Pierce spent his holiday working on making the adjustments required in order to pass a Grade A inspection.
    “It wasn’t anything really big,” Pierce said of what he needed to do to obtain the Grade A permit. “It was just a few small maintenance-type things that got put aside and overlooked. I had to do some painting and tidying up, and update some hoses and fix a crack in the bulk tank lid.”
    When the first of the year rolled around, Pierce had not yet been inspected to receive his Grade A permit. He dumped his milk for the first nine days of the new year, which he estimates was about 2,800 pounds. In the week following the first load shipped to DFA, Pierce has had 10 more cows freshen, putting his pick-ups over the 1,500-pound mark.
    “It was a really stressful couple of months,” Pierce said. “Not knowing where you are going to go with your milk, wondering what your options are, waiting to find the right answer.”
    The third generation of his family to dairy farm, Pierce has kept his farm going by keeping his inputs simple and his cost of production low.
    “I’ve kept things simple,” he said. “I feed my cows for components as opposed to pushing for high production. I have older equipment. I do my own repairs and maintenance, and just make things work. I can’t imagine not milking cows.”