The Placke Family Farm
Rita, Kelly and Joe Placke, Cuba City, WI
Coming Home Again- The Placke Family Story
Rita and Joe Placke were high school sweethearts who came from farming families in the Kieler/Sinsinawa area of southern Wisconsin. After they married, and were ready to begin their farming career in 1980, Joe’s father helped them get started. Unfortunately, 1980 was not the best time to be buying land. Prices were at their peak, and interest rates were at 13%. “Dad bought the farm. We bought it under land contract from him. We probably would have lost it if it weren’t for that. We bought the cows and equipment with a loan from FHA. The interest was so high, that we made no principle payments for the first several years,” noted Joe.
By 1985 farm prices had dropped and so had interest rates, which went from 13% to 5%, so they were able to start making principle payments. To make ends meet, they added on to the barn in 1988 and went from 50 cows to 90 cows. “Everyone was telling us that we needed to get bigger and to push for more milk. We were averaging 70 pounds per cow and our vet said we’d have to get up to 90+ pounds if we wanted to keep up with the western dairies. If we stayed conventional we would have had to become managers, not farmers. We were already working as hard as we could,” said Joe.
Around the same time, they became more interested in organic farming practices. Rita had been subscribing to “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine, and they went to some of the first Organic Farming Conferences in Sinsinawa. Then Joe’s brother got cancer. “My brother’s cancer was caused by exposure to farm chemicals. He had been in the hospital for corn insecticide poisoning,” lamented Joe. Another major catalyst was when Jay Richard, a local dairy farmer, went organic with his 35 cow dairy and started shipping to the new CROPP Cooperative (Organic Valley).
Joe contacted Jim Wedeberg and George Siemon at Organic Valley, confirmed that they were looking for more organic milk in the area, and started their transition in 1993. By 1996 they were certified, but they had to wait another year until Organic Valley was ready for their milk.
As one of the early adopters of organic practices in his area, Joe was confident that he was making the right decision, but had a few worries at first. “You always worry about not using antibiotics and about weed control. When we quit using lutalyse, our cows actually bred back better. We were not pushing them as hard, so they stayed healthier. We lost more cows when we used antibiotics than since we stopped using them,” said Joe. “I learned how to treat cows organically from other organic farmers, from ACRES magazine, and from Organic Farming Conferences.”
“We used to use a three year corn and then three years in hay rotation. Now we do one year of corn, one of wheat and then three of hay. I have had good luck with this rotation. We also found out during the transition that we made up for the drop in production through the reduction of input costs. Our vet bills were less, and so were our costs for fertilizers and pesticides. We used to have the vet out two times a week. We now go for several months without needing him.”
“The stable pay price is the key. Conventional prices are $12 one year and then $9 the next. We need more farmers to get together on stable pricing. It is very hard to get everyone on board. The pricing for organic grains still fluctuates too much,” noted Joe.
Joe and Rita were the first organic dairy farmers in LaFayette County. They took a lot of calls from interested farmers over the years. “A lot of kids who worked for us went on to start their own farms, however, we weren’t sure any of our own children were interested,” said Joe.
Joe and Rita have four children. Their oldest son Aaron was in the Marines and now is a chiropractor in Seattle. Their second son Joshua is a teacher on the Navaho Reservation in Arizona, and their youngest son Nick is a Marine. They also have one daughter, Kelly, who may have been the least likely to have an interest in farming.
Kelly Placke went to college and earned a degree in art. “I milked every morning and night unless I was doing sports- I had to be there to milk. Growing up on a farm, and in a big family, I wanted to get far away for college. I went to Arizona to school and afterwards got involved in the art community in Phoenix. I started an art space and community garden in downtown Phoenix in 2009. We converted a garden of dust into the Garden of Eden,” said Kelly.
“The friend that I started the project with was intrigued by the fact that I grew up on a farm, so in deciding what to do with the plot next to the art space, he suggested a community garden. That is what got me back involved with agriculture- gardening. Mom and Dad came down and thought that the project was great. In 2009, I bought my first house with help on the down payment from my parents. It was just after the recession so I got it for a great price and sold it three years later at the top of the market. I paid off my school loans and had money saved. I had no plan at that point, aside from wanting to get out of the desert, so I traveled to Alaska, Morocco, France and Ireland”.
“I was working on a goat farm in France when the light bulb turned on. Mom called and said she wished she had someone to help with the fall harvest. I thought to myself ‘why am I here and not working on my own farm?’” laughed Kelly. “It was the first time that I seriously considered farming as an option”.
With Kelly coming home with an interest in joining the farming operation, Joe and Rita started researching their options for bringing on a family member successfully.
They started by forming an LLC. Each of the Placke children bought 40 acres of land and Kelly also bought an additional 40. The LLC pays rent to each of the property owners. The LLC collects all income (milk and grain) and pays out a salary to the business partners (Joe, Rita and Kelly). “The organic price allows this ability to sell the farm for the price we paid for it in 1980,” noted Joe. “We make enough to live and pass on the farm. Conventional farmers don’t often have that option”.
Kelly earns a wage and a 2-2.5% ownership transfer of the LLC each year. In 20 years she will own a 50% share.
“Without this arrangement, buying a farm would not have been an option for me, as with many of my generation, who often start off with a lot of debt,” added Kelly.
“The roles worked out quickly. I do all of the milking. Dad has been ready to stop doing that for a while. I’ve taken a great interest in herd health and am very happy handling the animals while Dad focuses on the crops,” said Kelly.
Kelly is currently milking her grass-based, no grain herd of 40 cows in an older stanchion barn. Her goal is to upgrade to a robotic milking system in five to ten years so she can increase to 60 cows without adding more time to her workday. “I recently started a small milk soap business and would like to continue to have time for that as well as gardening and other hobbies. Our current barn is obsolete, and a parlor would just put me 10-20 years behind the technology curve. Robotic milkers are exciting. There are a lot more options for placement, which I think we could get really creative with, with a grass-based operation” stressed Kelly. She also plans to use an NRCS cost share program to add new water lines to the pastures.
“I am so grateful that my parents were ready to start the conversation about a succession plan. I was recently talking with a friend who helps run her father’s family business with her three brothers. Her dad refuses to talk about the generational transfer, which really puts everyone in an uncomfortable position, especially if something unexpected were to happen where they were forced to make decisions quickly.”