Brett Blackwelder checks over data provided by the milking robots in October 2020 on his family’s farm near Chokio, Minnesota. Brett manages the milking herd and calves on the dairy. 
Brett Blackwelder checks over data provided by the milking robots in October 2020 on his family’s farm near Chokio, Minnesota. Brett manages the milking herd and calves on the dairy. DAIRY STAR FILE PHOTO
Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a series highlighting families who are the last dairy farm to operate within their respective counties across our coverage area. Dairy Star hopes to shed light on the industry’s landscape surrounding these farms and how these isolated farms thrive.
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CHOKIO, Minn. – Big Stone County has its own branch of the American Dairy Association even though the county only has one dairy farm remaining.
“For being the only dairy, we’re lucky that we have some former dairy farmers who are still willing to be on the board,” Mark Blackwelder said. “We do promote things yet. We’ve got the malt wagon at the Big Stone County Fair.”
Mark and Amy Blackwelder and their sons, Brett and Kent, milk 320 Holsteins near Chokio using six Lely robotic milking units. They also grow soybeans, corn, wheat and alfalfa on 2,750 acres. Their daughter, Katelyn, works off the farm in the agriculture industry.
“I was in college when we became the last dairy in the county,” Brett said. “In order for us to have a legitimate ADA, the president and vice president had to have separate addresses. We put my address as my grandparents’ place since I didn’t have my own address yet so that the state would allow us to keep our ADA.”
Officers on the ADA board must be current dairy farmers, so Mark serves as president and Brett as vice president. Kent is a member. The other four members used to milk cows but do not any longer.
Having their own ADA is important to county residents, especially during the Big Stone County Fair.
“The (ADA’s) malt wagon is a big attraction for the fair,” Brett said.
The wagon is managed by board members, who work shifts during the fair and find other volunteers, often family members or retired dairy farmers, to work as well.
The Blackwelders make sure to work a shift, but they do not have a lot of extra time for the fair because they are busy keeping their fifth-generation dairy farm humming. Although there are several dairies in nearby Stevens County, Blackwelder Farms is the lone one in Big Stone.
“Even in the early 1990s, we still had 20-plus herds in Big Stone County, and those were just the ones on test (with Dairy Herd Improvement Association),” Mark said. “In the early 2000s, I think we still had 10 of them. A lot of them were smaller: 30-, 40-, 50-cow dairies.”
Brett said the expansive land in the area may have been a factor in dairy’s decline, as farmers opted for larger grain farms rather than dairies. The Blackwelders keep milking cows because of both their farming goals and preferences.
 “It’s constant income, and it will keep all three of us on the farm and support three families,” Brett said. “I’ve liked working with cows. It’s a challenge obviously, but it can be rewarding seeing changes you make that make your cows healthier or more productive.”
Mark agreed.
“When I came back to farm in 1984, I was in the field, too, but I really liked the cow side of it,” he said. “I’m still in the barn every day.”
However, being the only dairy farm in Big Stone County has its challenges.
“The milk goes to Land O’Lakes in Melrose, an hour and a half away,” Mark said. “Our robots are also serviced out of Melrose, and the vet is about 45 minutes away. We’re fortunate that implement dealers are close, but as far as dairy infrastructure, there’s not a lot around for us.”
The family has found ways to deal with the distances.
“We keep a large inventory of dairy-specific parts on hand,” Brett said. “I’ve learned to fix a lot on my own when robots break down. If we need the dealer to come out, it’s usually for a pretty major problem.”
The Blackwelders have two full-time employees, and their hoof trimmer, Mitch Ackerman, travels two hours to their farm from Sauk Rapids and has for over 20 years.
“We’re just happy he’s willing to drive this far,” Brett said.
 Another reason the farm succeeds is the two generations work well together.
“We are trying to work to each other’s strengths,” Brett said. “I’m more of a cow guy than Kent, so I kind of take care of the cows. Kent has a knack for fixing tractors and keeping them clean and performing properly. I would be looking for an excuse to go work with cows rather than wax a tractor.”
Mark agreed but said he sees his role as less specific.
“I’m in the barn, then I’m in the field,” he said. “I don’t know if I have any strengths. I’m just consistently here all the time.”
Brett said Kent works with cows but does bookwork and is a big part of the grain operation. Kent also has a seed business.
Mark’s wife, Amy, works off the farm but does farm payroll and bookwork.
The family operates as a team.
“As long as we can keep advancing and they keep picking up our milk, I’m sure we’ll be at it for the foreseeable future,” Brett said.
That includes Mark. He has watched the farm continue to grow and said he does not see himself ever fully retiring.
“We’ve stuck it out and kept with the times, slowly expanding as we could and trying to keep the farm modernized,” Mark said. “I’ve always said I’ll be done when they kick me off the tractor. My dad, Earl, was in his 80s and still out here whenever he could be. That was his life, and I still enjoy it too.”
Brett said he does not mind being the only dairy farm in their county. Sometimes it even makes him feel good.
“People say to us, ‘Oh, you’re that dairy farm,’ because we are the only one,” Brett said. “When we say our last name, we get recognized as the dairy.”