Milking it: Get up early for breakfast
ELKHORN -- Besides the scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausages, cheese and even ice cream being served at the 41st annual Walworth County Dairy Breakfast in Elkhorn on June 17, visitors also will get a slice of farm life.
Traditionally, dairy breakfast-goers are treated to a look behind the scenes of a local host family farm. This year they'll be able to catch shuttle buses from the Walworth County Fairgrounds to Sterken Farms near Delavan for tours of both a dairy farm and a newer agribusiness.
Besides operating the dairy cow farm with his two brothers, Lester Sterken and his wife, Helen, also raise goats on their own.
What started out as a hobby of about 30 goats for the couple has grown over the last year and a half. The Sterkens now milk about 500 goats, getting help on the farm from a son, sons-in-law and even a grandson this summer.
“It actually runs pretty smoothly,” Helen Sterken said of the operation.
The goats' milk is sold to a cheese producer.
Goat cheese is gaining in popularity among everyone from regional foodies to consumers who can't tolerate cheese made with cow's milk to people interested in the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
The Sterkens themselves are part of a growing trend of dairy goat farmers. The state ranks first in the nation in milk goat inventory with some 46,000 milk goats, according to a 2015 Wisconsin Farm Bureau report.
Dairy farmers who have switched from cows to goats or added goats to their herds find the transition isn't too difficult.
“We've done cows our whole lives. I started the goats because I thought it would be something different and kind of fun,” Lester Sterken said. “You have the same type of chores with both animals, but goats are smaller and a lot easier to handle.”
The herd has now grown to around 800, its numbers fluctuating with newborn kids.
“We've gotten 20 goats having babies in one day,” Helen Sterken said. “We get twins and quads, and even occasionally get quints.”
The Sterkens will be around to answer questions for visitors, who can tour the farms and see the animals up close.
It's a toss-up over which dairy breakfast attendees enjoy more: getting a taste of farm life or eating the breakfast, said Kathy Papcke, secretary at the Walworth County Farm Bureau, who also has helped organize the event.
“People love the food,” she said. “They love seeing the scrambled eggs being made in a giant pan and the pancakes on those big grills. And, of course, they love the ice cream. Who doesn't like ice cream for breakfast?
“But they also love to tour the farms and see the animals. One year, people got to see a calf being born, which was amazing.”
Prior to about 2001, the breakfast was held on the host farms, but a hoof and mouth disease scare made organizers decide to move the event to the Walworth County Fairgrounds, where, with one exception, it has remained, Papcke said.
“I think people really like having it at the fairgrounds because they know where to park and where the bathrooms are, there are buildings they can go to in inclement weather and there are more activities available to them,” she said. “Lots of times the pony club will bring in horses, or there will be calves to see.”
Besides the breakfast, there is also a craft fair, vendors and exhibits, a small animal display, a bake sale, a coffee cake contest, live entertainment and more.
The event typically draws between 2,500 and 3,000 visitors, Papcke said.
“It's becoming a real community event,” she said. “It's great seeing the community come together for this because agriculture in Walworth County is a big presence and a big part of the economy.”
Consumers also are becoming more interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it's grown and produced, she said.
That makes the dairy breakfast a good way to introduce people to their local farmers and learn what challenges today's farmers face, said Terry Papcke, Kathy's husband, the president of the Walworth County Farm Bureau and a farmer himself.
Those challenges range from weather conditions that affect crop growth to trade policies, like the one that recently affected some 75 Wisconsin dairy farmers when a milk buyer stopped purchasing milk from them because of new regulations in Canada.
“There's always that worry as dairy farmers get older if a younger generation will be able to get started,” Terry Papcke said. “It's a tough row to hoe because the financial part is so terrific -- the cost of land, fertilizers, cows. The profit margin is not big, although things do go in cycles.
“It's good to educate the public on what farmers go through and how much time farmers put in on the job. It's really hard, physical work. I'm 61 years old and I've been farming since I was 10 or 12, helping my dad milk the cows.
“But I enjoy doing my job and I'd rather do it than sit in a factory day after day.”