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Losing Heritage: Hardship Is More Than Financial For Wisconsin Dairy Farmers

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John Haynes
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About 100 cows, and 40 calves and heifers, live on the Klussendorf's Broadlands Grass Farm in Medford, Wisc.

Just about every morning, Ryan Klussendorf wakes up at 5 to get his cows ready for the day. He milks them, feeds them, and then it’s time to start on paperwork before doing it all again in the afternoon. It’s a job that he and his wife Cheri have done for most of their lives. 

Like many dairy farmers in Wisconsin, the Klussendorfs have been faced with hard, economic realities. Unlike others in their profession, they’ve been able to stay profitable — in part, due to Cheri Klussendorf's job with Riesterer & Schnell, a John Deere dealership that works with a lot of farmers. It’s a job that brings more than financial stability, and it’s also given her a firsthand look at the challenges other farmers face.

"I mean, it is a business, but these animals that you're taking care of every day — they're there every day ... And then one day, when you can't do it anymore, when you cannot physically take care of those animals anymore and you have to sell them off, it's like losing part of your family," she explains. 

READ: Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Are Struggling. An Agricultural Economist Explains Why

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Credit John Haynes
Ryan and Cheri Klussendorf on their farm near Medford, Wisc.

Both Cheri and Ryan Klussendorf are third generation farmers. It's part of their heritage. That's common among Wisconsin farmers, and part of what makes the prospect of bankruptcy so heart-wrenching. 

"When you’re on this farm that was your parents’ farm or your grandparents’ farm or even further back than that, and you’re the last one on the farm that all of a sudden can’t afford to milk cows anymore ... you kind of feel like you’re leaving that heritage behind and you’re letting down all of those people that were in front of you," says Cheri Klussendorf. 

"You kind of feel like you're leaving that heritage behind and you’re letting down all of those people that were in front of you," says Cheri Klussendorf.

Aside from his work on the farm, Ryan Klussendorf is on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation's board of directors, and he's become an advocate for the state's dairy farmers. It's become an increasingly important role, he says, as farms continue to close throughout the state, and mental health issues continue to rise.

"As leaders in the [agriculture] community we need to start looking at mental health training for ourselves, so we can spot when people need to seek help because suicide has been an issue lately in the agriculture world," says Ryan Klussendorf . "We want to make sure we're caring for our neighbors and friends that farm, and make sure they're getting the help that they need."

The Klussendorfs were featured in an article in this month’s Milwaukee Magazine.

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect. Before then, she was a director and producer for Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm Chicago Public Radio.