Ken Johnson takes a milk reading Jan. 6 at the Waldvogel farm near Osakis, Minnesota. Johnson said he has no plans to retire.
PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
Ken Johnson takes a milk reading Jan. 6 at the Waldvogel farm near Osakis, Minnesota. Johnson said he has no plans to retire. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
OSAKIS, Minn. – Ken Johnson is not retiring. In fact, he plans to keep hauling milk for as long as he can.
“I’ll keep going as long as the good Lord allows me,” Johnson said. “My joke I tell my farmers is, ‘When I turn 70, I’m going to cut back to a 40-hour week.’”
For more than 50 years, Johnson has hauled milk, driving bulk trucks for the Osakis Creamery Association of Osakis. Routes and destinations have changed throughout the years, but aspects of Johnson’s job have remained the same.
Johnson drinks about 10 cups of weak coffee on his route every day, and he makes connections with farm families, which is the part of his job Johnson said he values most.
“It’s my main reason for hauling milk,” Johnson said. “My patrons and families are a big part of my staying this long.”
For certain farms, Johnson has been an almost daily presence for three generations, and he said he has seen both happy and sad times experienced by those families.
Johnson said he tries to be a supportive force.
“I’ll put an arm around them and let them know if they need somebody, I’ve got big shoulders,” he said.
Johnson is often invited to the weddings and other gatherings of his farm families, and he attends the events whenever possible, sometimes finding inventive ways to do so. When a teenager from one family invited Johnson to her graduation party, Johnson had to work that day. His wife, Linda, met him on his route with a change of clothes and drove him to the party. Afterward, they returned to where his truck was parked, and Johnson continued his route.
“Those relationships and memories mean so much to me,” Johnson said.
While Johnson has remained in the same job, changes have taken place around him. One change has been with the trucks themselves.
“That first bulk truck had a 1,300-gallon tank on it, and we had a little 600-gallon pup trailer we pulled to haul skim milk with,” Johnson said. “The truck I have today has a 6,200-gallon tank.”
Other changes Johnson has seen are in dairy farm numbers and sizes. He has to travel farther on his routes to reach farms which are spread far apart. Johnson said his route radius has gone from roughly 8 miles to 35 miles during his career.
“At my peak, I would probably pick up at 25 or 26 stops a day,” Johnson said. “At every barn you saw then, they were milking cows. Right now, it’s about 10 stops. You travel all over for a load of milk.”
However, each stop has more milk.
“The sizes of the herds have increased immensely,” Johnson said.
The Osakis Creamery Association has also seen changes.
“We built the first fertilizer building on this property in 1975, so we expanded from just milk into agronomy,” Johnson said. “I’ve always stayed with the milk, but the agronomy really gave us a boost.”
During its peak in the 1980s, the creamery was collecting about 500,000 pounds of milk per day. That number has shrunk to roughly 120,000 pounds per day as dairy farms disappear.
Johnson’s connection to the Osakis Creamery Association stretches to before he was born. Both his grandparents and his parents were patron farmers of the creamery. Johnson still has the billfold his grandfather received from the creamery at its 1959 annual meeting. His father also received a billfold that day, but he died that same year of a sudden heart attack. Johnson remembers his mother using the billfold herself after his father’s death. At 40 years old, Johnson’s mother had to continue farming without her husband and their seven children, the oldest having just graduated.
Johnson graduated in 1967 as the third youngest of the siblings. A war in Vietnam was escalating at the time.
“I knew I was going to get drafted,” Johnson said. “The creamery needed somebody to haul cans (of milk), so I did it then just to kind of fill in. We did have the bulk truck then, so I would do some bulk hauling too.”
That first bulk truck was purchased by the creamery in 1964, but only after 10 farmers had signed on to get a bulk tank at their farms, making the purchase of the truck viable. Johnson’s family farm was one of the 10.
After a while, Johnson left the creamery to take a job doing mechanical work for a car dealership in Alexandria. He continued to help on the farm as well.
Then, Johnson’s prediction came true. He was drafted in 1968 at the age of 19. The next three years found him training for and then serving as a combat engineer, running a bulldozer most of the time during two tours in Vietnam.
When he left Vietnam for the second time in 1971, he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. There, he met a women named Linda at the nearby bowling alley. They married that year.
Today, the Johnsons have four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
After Johnson’s service, he and Linda returned to Osakis. Interstates 90 and 94 were being constructed, and bulldozing experience was needed. Johnson spent two years working in road construction. He said he loved the work.
“My heart will always be on a dozer doing dirt work,” Johnson said. “My wife says I have diesel fuel in my blood.”
However, as the interstate projects came to an end in 1973, Johnson knew he needed another job. His old employer, the Osakis Creamery Association, was looking for milk haulers.
Once Johnson was hired, he never left.
After 50 years, Johnson said his job still suits him, and he continues to connect with the farm families he serves.
“I really like that Luke Bryon song, ‘Most People Are Good,’” Johnson said. “That’s the reason I like hauling milk. I’ve made many friends through the years. I hope I can keep that the rest of my life.”