Cows graze on pasture last summer at the Claerbauts’ organic farm near Oostburg, Wisconsin. 
PHOTO SUBMITTED
Cows graze on pasture last summer at the Claerbauts’ organic farm near Oostburg, Wisconsin. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    OOSTBURG, Wis. – Answering his call to be a dairy farmer, Benjamin Claerbaut left his family’s hay business in 2012 to pursue a career in organic farming. When he bowed out of the business, Claerbaut was raising 45 grass-fed steers and cash cropping hay. However, he was searching for something more stable.
“Believe it or not, I chose dairy farming,” Claerbaut said.
The Claerbauts milk 35 Holsteins, Jersey crosses and Fleckviehs, and farm 230 acres near Oostburg. Claerbaut and his wife, Gina, have five children – Julianna, 17, Josh, 15, Kate, 13, Ava, 9, and Kale, 6. Gina homeschools the children.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” said Claerbaut about his farming experience thus far. “Everyone thought I was insane for going into dairy farming and even more insane for going organic when conventional milk was priced at $24-$25. In 2015, conventional milk dropped to $14, and I was really thankful we didn’t go that route. We would’ve went out of business.”
Leery of chemicals and believing in feeding their family organic food, organic was the only way Claerbaut wanted to farm. Reading product warning labels as a youth on his family farm that warned of respiratory issues and fatality made Claerbaut question why they were putting these chemicals on crops for human consumption.
“If you’re good at farming organically, you can still make conventional yields,” Claerbaut said.
He also believes the fertility of the land and animal health is better when farming organically.
“I can count on one hand the number of times the vet has been here,” Claerbaut said. “We get a case of mastitis once a year but only in a fresh cow.”
Claerbaut is dairying on the farm where he grew up; however, the farm was never a dairy operation until Claerbaut turned it into one.
“We had to start from scratch,” he said. “The barn was disassembled, and there was no plumbing or electricity.”
In March 2014, Claerbaut broke ground on the barn his parents once used for housing heifers. A sheep farm long ago that shifted to dairy heifers, Claerbaut redid the barn and switched from stanchions to free stalls and built an addition to the barn for a 4-stall milking parlor.
Claerbaut purchased a herd of conventional cows with the intent of transitioning to organic because the land was a year away from reaching organic status. However, Claerbaut soon discovered he had enough adjacent land to his property that he could have gone organic from the get-go.
“We had no history with that herd nor did we have any youngstock, so we decided to sell them,” Claerbaut said. “The first call we received on the first day came from a guy who bought the herd at full price, and we went out of business July 20, keeping one cow for milk for ourselves.”
After finding an organic herd in Minnesota, the Claerbauts were certified organic before starting up again Oct. 14, 2014, when they started shipping milk to Organic Valley Farms.
“I was sold on Organic Valley’s advertising of organic farming as the last frontier of sustainable small-scale agriculture,” Claerbaut said. “It offered a road to succession and the possibility of actually making a living on small-scale farming.”
The Claerbauts started with 15 cows and also had rental income and a few additional side projects to live off of. As they progressed, Claerbaut realized he needed more cows, and by January, the herd doubled in size. Things went really well for 1.5 years.
“We had a lot of fun,” Claerbaut said. “It was the perfect niche. We were making money and paying our bills. But by mid-2016, the organic market slumped, and we lost 22% of our income, so I started working part time. In 2017, talk of a grass milk tank promised $5 more, but the route moved to Ohio instead and left us hanging.”
The family struggled from 2017 to the end of 2020, causing Claerbaut to start an excavating business to help pay bills and offset the difference. Last September, Claerbaut thought long and hard about leaving farming. He decided this would be his last attempt to make a go of it.
“We’re changing our nutritional program and adding corn back into the diet,” said Claerbaut, whose herd is currently 100% grass-fed. “We also found additional land to offset expenses and are going to cash crop organic beans. We also plan to expand the herd to 50 cows.”
Claerbaut has been around hay his whole life, and hay sales help fill some financial gaps. He grew up doing 3,200 small bales daily and 120,000 small bales per year in the family business. As he picks up land, Claerbaut is seeing a profit by putting in hay to sell as conventional while transitioning the land to organic. He sold 4,000 bales last year primarily to the horse market and plans to do the same this year.
“We usually have 40-50 acres we’re converting,” Claerbaut said. “It’s never been an issue for us to find land. We’ve been blessed to find it easily and have people soliciting us to farm their land organically. The landowners we work with are super excited to go away from chemical row crop farming.”
Growing the herd is an immediate goal of Claerbaut’s.  
“There’s a certain scale you need to be at to compensate for expenses,” Claerbaut said. “We fell below that number, but we’re hoping this is the answer to carry us through.”
Claerbaut’s oldest daughter has expressed interest in farming and plans to remain on the farm after graduating high school next year. Julianna does milking and also works two part-time jobs. Josh does field work and feeds daily and would also like to start doing some cash cropping. In addition, the family started a lawn mowing business that Josh is going to manage. The Claerbauts also employ a part-time youth to help with milking and other chores.
 “I’m very optimistic for the future,” Claerbaut said. “Julianna is talking about buying cows of her own, so she can earn part of the milk check. That ties back to that initial promise of small-scale dairies and being able to bring in the next generation.”
Wishing for more positive times, Claerbaut said he is waiting for organic prices to be sustainable once again.
“We’ve had almost four years of a lull with no change in compensation,” he said. “Organic milk has held at $25, and we are eagerly awaiting the price to go up. It was $34 when things were going great.”
Although his farming career has been filled with ups and downs, Claerbaut and his family are determined to stick it out.
“It’s good to work with my family and shepherd the kids, letting them see what life is like on a farm,” Claerbaut said. “We’re not doing this to strike it rich.”
Claerbaut plans to continue supplementing income through various business ventures until he can make farming the full-time focus.
“I want to be a full-time dairy farmer,” Claerbaut said. “Farming is what I was called to do.”