Bringing dairy back

Fernholzes named 2023 Douglas County Farm Family of the Year

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KENSINGTON, Minn. — Pete Fernholz and his wife, Nicole, play a leadership role in more than 10 community organizations. At the same time, they milk 500 registered Jerseys and farm 1,200 tillable acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat at Little Brook Dairy Inc. near Kensington.

 The Fernholz family was named the 2023 Douglas County Farm Family of the Year.

“That’s how you make a community, helping with other organizations besides just farming and not expanding your vision,” Pete Fernholz said. “It’s an honor to be named farm family because of all the people who were named before me. I have great respect for them, and they have done a great job in the community.”

The Fernholzes are active in a number of ways. 

They showed cattle in 4-H as children, and now, they lease their own cattle to families who have kids who want to show. 

Fernholz is on the Douglas County Agricultural Association board, is a representative for the Minnesota Dairy Herd Improvement Association board and an active member of the Lake Mary Township board.

Nicole works an off-the-farm job and is involved in her family’s church, the Alexandria Technical & Community College advisory board and the college’s foundation hall board, Alexandria Public School’s Champion Academy, the West Central Initiative board, the Lakes Area Professional Women and Andria Theatre.

They both have served as leaders in the University of Minnesota Extension’s Emerging Leadership Program. Along with their activities, the family gives back, donating beef to the local food shelf.

 On the farm, Fernholz, and his brother, Mark, and Mark’s nephew, Caden, and eight employees manage the fieldwork and milk in a double-10 parallel parlor twice a day. The brothers hired their employees when the Fernholzes’ children, Tatum, Riley and Gavryn, got jobs off the farm or went to college.

“When we first bought the farm, we were sitting at about 200 milking,” Fernholz said. “Then, we added 60 shortly after and the other 240 about six years ago.”

Their milk is shipped through First District Association and is processed into butter and cheese through the Bongards, Fieldgate Cheese and Dinner Bell Creamery brands.

The herd is currently producing a 5.8% butterfat and 4.2% protein.

“Our butterfat is through the roof right now,” Fernholz said. “However, I’m most proud that we are having good luck with our calves. We have about 10 born every week.”

The work has not come without its challenges.

The biggest obstacle the family has faced is one many farmers do — the volatility of prices. Fernholz gave credit to Nicole for the farm being able to continue to cash flow everything more easily.

“Without her dedication and hard work, we probably wouldn’t be farming,” Fernholz said. “She has always been driven. I could make a million dollars, and she’d still go work. She’s a people person.”

While being busy between work and their community, the couple finds and enjoys quality time with their family, even if it is going on the lake or taking a small vacation.

“In the past, it was harder because of all the different animals, but as we continued to grow (the dairy), we were able to find good help,” Fernholz said. “We still don’t get a lot of time away, but it helped.”

Through the years, the couple has been committed to spending time with their kids. The time on the farm and going to shows are things the kids will remember, Fernholz said.

“Stay involved in the community,” Fernholz said. “Make sure you take time to spend with your family even for the small things.”

Family and farming have always been important to Fernholz.

When Fernholz was younger, his father milked 52 registered Jerseys that were sold a week prior to his graduation from high school.

“After high school, I did a brief time in college then came back and started with hogs,” Fernholz said. “We started with 100 at the old farm.”

Soon, a new hog barn was built, and Fernholz was raising 700 sows from farrow to finish. Fernholz also raised elk for about 15 years.

Though the family’s farm site was purchased with plans for a beef feed lot, they continued the operation as a dairy farm. Fernholz said they were inspired to continue the Jersey lineage because their father had Jerseys. Before Fernholz and Nicole were named a farm family of the year, the award was also bestowed on Mark’s family in 2011 for their work with the dairy herd.

“One thing that sets us apart is the amount of Jerseys we have,” Fernholz said.

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