It’s not easy running a family farm in the U.S. these days, and the statistics reflect that. Every week, roughly 330 farmers—including families that have farmed for generations—quit the business. In 1935, there were nearly seven million farms in the U.S.; by 2002, only around two million remained. And family farms that do stay in business have an aging workforce; today more than half of farmers are between the ages of 45 and 64, while only six percent are younger than 35. So what’s it like to run a family farm? And what does it take to keep one afloat? We posed these questions to owners of five long-running farms around the country. While all agree that the natural-foods movement helps business, they are each embracing different strategies for keeping their farms up and running. Two are actively planning for growth and expansion, enlisting other small farms to help grow crops, and thereby helping those farmers keep their way of life. Others are scaling back—or encouraging younger generations to seek other professions. Here are their stories.

Village Edge Farms and Organic Choice Dairy (specialty: dairy)

Nelson, Wisconsin

Greg Hetrick, 49, always knew he would grow up to run Village Edge, the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. “My parents didn’t tell me that I had to come back,” he says. “I just didn’t want to go to college after high school. I was happy working on the farm.” Today, Hetrick and his brother Dennis run Village Edge together.

Greg attributes the company’s modest but continued success to being open to change and investing in new equipment—but only when they have the resources. “My father always said if you didn’t have the money or couldn’t get it soon, then you didn’t spend it,” Hetrick says. Slow growth has been another key to sustaining the business; he’s kept the current herd of 130 cows for about a decade.

Hetrick began adopting sustainable farming practices in 1991. After the farm received its organic certification in 1997, Village Edge partnered with four other farms to found Organic Choice, a jointly held corporation that sells its milk—together with milk that it buys from other small farmers—on the open market, helping all of them to reduce costs. This new venture has been a good lesson in how to run a business, says Hetrick, who now regularly attends sales and marketing meetings. That’s in addition to a seven-day workweek that starts at 4:30 every morning, when Hetrick begins the first of two daily milkings, and progresses to tasks like cleaning out stalls, routine veterinary work (using homeopathic remedies in place of antibiotics), and harvesting and preparing hay while the cows munch fresh grass. “There’s nothing better than seeing a cow out at pasture,” he says. “You see these old cows out there kicking their heels up, like a bunch of little children running out in the playground.” His son and nephew pitch in, along with foreign exchange students he’s hired. He makes a point of eating every meal with his family.

While glad that the demand for natural and organic fare has helped his and other farms stay in business, he sometimes worries small operations like his could shrink or disappear now that large companies are entering the sustainable food industry. One dairy that concerns him is Horizon, which currently buys about a third of Organic Choice’s milk. Wary of becoming too dependent on deals like this one, the company is now launching its own line of products, including cheese, yogurt, and an energy drink. For Hetrick, this is an important step. “Horizon, they’re big, and they like to push you around,” he says. “The sooner we can get away from them, the better off we are.” As the market for locally produced food grows, Hetrick may get his wish.

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.

Copyright Enrivon Press 2007

Also in this series

It's a family farming affair: Wisconsin
Behind the scenes of eco-conscious farms.