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The Unconventional Harvest: Conventional Dairy Farmer Art Thelen

“Milk is milk! I don’t care if you are payin’ 3 dollars a gallon for regular milk or if you’re payin’ 6 dollars for organic milk. Milk is milk!”

—Art Thelen

Art Thelin has worked on a Wisconsin dairy farm just outside the town of LaFarge since before he could read or write. Dairy farming is in his blood. Thelen family lore says Art’s mother gave birth, clipped the umbilical cord, and demanded he go feed the cows. For many farmers across the American heartland, farming is a job. For Art Thelen, dairy farming is an around the clock job as well as a treasured hobby.

Art Thelen, Dairy Farmer; LaFarge, Wisconsin

Art Thelen, Dairy Farmer; LaFarge, Wisconsin.
Photo: Nathan Winters

Art Thelen owns Wild Rose Dairy, which sits prominently in the lush green and steep hills of the popular Plum Run in Vernon County. He operates what many people refer to as a “CAFO” or a “Factory farm”. Call it what you will, Art Thelen is a proud man and has no shame or guilt about his 1,000 acre labyrinth of well-defined rows of GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. He will proudly show off his prized herd of dairy cattle eating silage from a cement floor in a climate controlled barn.

With the help of immigrant labor and a state-of-the-art, mostly automated milking parlor, the Wild Rose Dairy milks those 1,100 cows three times a day, around the clock, without fail. There are no morning and evening milking chores, just one relentless cycle of milk production.

Art greeted me in front of the Wild Rose Dairy farm during a torrential downpour. With a wide grin and a gleam in his big blue eyes, he chuckled and marveled that I had just climbed Plum Run in the rain on a bicycle to visit his farm. “Plum Run is a helluva butt kicker. Even in my pickup truck,” he said. Art’s neck was like a rugged tree trunk. His wrists were thick like tree branches and his strong hands were hewn from years of hard farm work. Art worked in overalls; he looked just like the quintessential Wisconsin dairy farmer.

Art and I escaped from the rain and sat down for a cup of coffee in an employee break room. My attention was diverted by a man walking by with a shotgun — clearly not a tool needed for milking cows. With a composed tone, Art quickly explained that it was “no big deal.” Earlier in the day a cow had fallen, broken a leg, and was no longer productive to the dairy herd. It was now going to become productive again: it would be shot and butchered for meat. “An injury like this happens about a half a dozen times a year. We’ll shoot her, hang her from the front loader, and butcher her here on the farm. Then everybody eats hamburgers.”

Art was so nonchalant and straightforward I had forgotten about the sad reality: an animal had been discarded simply because of an injury. Suddenly the food chain became starkly apparent.

After the diversion, Art was eager to get his tour going. He walked me into the milking parlor and began explaining the technical details of his fancy machinery. Mostly, I rubbernecked at his cows’ enormous udders. They looked like punching balloons. The overall body mass and size of Art’s cows was enormous (especially compared to the cows I’d seen on Garin Smith’s Grassland Organic Farm). When I mentioned this to Art, he nodded his head. “Through our genetic breeding system we are trying to reduce the overall size of our cows to reduce injuries due to clumsiness as they get older.” This sounded great in Art’s reassuring, confident voice, but it felt odd to know that we were creating an animal so massive that it could barely stand on its own, just for the sake of producing more milk. And then, we turn it around and re-modify its body to avoid injury.

Somewhere, in search of production and profits, the industrial food system had turned cows into guinea pigs.

Wild Rose Dairy Milking Parlor

Wild Rose Dairy Milking Parlor

In the milking parlor, cow shit sprayed metal butt pans, preventing the milker from getting covered in manure. Over the noise of suction, I asked Art for permission to take a few photographs. He responded, “Go right ahead. A lot of other farmers ask me if I let people take pictures on my farm. I tell them, ‘Of course I do.’ Maybe some other folks have something to hide. Not here, buddy. We have nothing to hide. My main job here is to educate and show the people who feel the need to degrade us farmers of what the truth really is when it comes to producing milk.”

I knew Art was speaking from the heart, and on behalf of the conventional farmer. It was his direct eye contact and raised voice that left me with no doubt. My arrival at Wild Rose Dairy followed the recent release of Food, Inc., the 2008 film that examines corporate farming. The director’s conclusion, that agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, environmentally harmful, and abusive to both animals and employees, was controversial. In the film’s wake, the entire conventional and industrial food system was under attack by the mainstream media. Including farmers like Art Thelen.

Art escorted me to a very long, modern-looking barn and he said with pride, “This is where my girls live. These pens get cleaned three times a day and their stalls have soft rubber mats on top of the concrete floor that keep the cows comfortable.” Surprised, I said, “This barn is pretty darn clean.” Art gave me a crooked smile and said, “If you don’t keep your cows clean, you won’t be in the dairy business very long.”

“When someone comes here looking for a job I say, ‘Let me see your car.’” Art said, earnestly. “If I find a bunch of empty pop bottles, dirty diapers, and other trash laying around in the floors or the back seat, I know right then and there that they aren’t going to be working for me.” Art laughed and said, “You could say we are big on clean here.”

Trying to avoid being drenched by a downpour, Art used his massive arms for an umbrella and walked me over to another barn identical to the previous. “This here is where we keep all of our pregnant cows,” Art said with enthusiasm. “You have a lot of pregnant cows, don’t you?” I asked in a rhetorical manner. Art smiled and with a brilliant Wisconsin accent he replied, “You betcha!”

He continued, “What blows me away is that we can take these cows from the time they weigh 75 pounds to something like that in just two years’ time.” Art pointed at one of the mammoth, pregnant cows as though it was a championship trophy. “How long do you typically keep these cows here on your farm?” I asked.

“On average we sell them at about 54 months. The state average is a little over 48 months.” “What exactly do you mean by ‘sell them’?” I asked. Art took his hands and replicated the gesture of flattening a hamburger patty down on a grill and said, “They go to hamburger. We will never go hungry here.”

I had never heard anyone be so matter of fact about to death as Art. That is, of course, except Gene Baur and his conflicting mission back at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen.

The cold rain continued and hopping back on my bike sounded far less desirable than spending time with Art, getting a closer look at the industrial side of dairy farming. With a tone of desperation, I floated the idea of staying in LaFarge for the night, followed by the fact that I had no other place to go in Art’s direction. Art graciously offered me a place to stay at his house. With my extended stay agreed upon, Art picked up my bicycle with one arm and plopped it into the bed of his old white and blue pickup truck. Making our way to the Thelen household, I caught a glimpse of Art’s employees butchering the massive cow as it hung from the tractor like enormous tomato dangling from the vine.

Driving down a long and rocky driveway, zig-zagging through endless fields of GMO corn and alfalfa, the sun poked out from beneath the clouds and the two of us had arrived. Art gave a soft smile and with great kindness said, “I can’t wait to introduce you to my wife. She is my better half, that’s for sure. You know she must have a lot of patience if she can put up with me. We have been married 25 years on June 25th.” You can line up 100 of the most beautiful and intelligent women in the entire world and I’ll still take my wife over any of them. I would die for my wife in a half a heartbeat.” I was speechless. In less than 20 minutes of entering the Thelin home, Art found the words to describe and share the authentic love he had for his wife. The way he described it, it was a love that most men spend a lifetime searching for.

Moments later, Art’s wife, Ellen, returned home from teaching Bible school. Just as gentle and beautiful as Art described. The Thelen house was built in 1919 and was warm, beautifully decorated with ornate detail embedded into the wood work and full of family photos from many generations. Ellen spoke gently and with a strong Wisconsin accent as she gave me the grand tour. While I had her undivided attention I asked Ellen if she found it difficult to be married to a Wisconsin dairy farmer. “Oh, goodness, yes! There are days when…”Ellen paused, reconsidered. “There was a time when Art felt like the farm might not survive unless he was working all of the time. It was then that I realized he was working for our livelihood and that I just needed to give that part of him up. He loved farming.” Ellen allowed a deep sigh to escape, then smiled, “As much time and energy farming has demanded from our family, I can honestly say that there was no better place for us to raise our children. They know about life. They know about death and they certainly know how to work, and make decisions.”

Ellen and I walked into the kitchen where Art had been drinking a tall glass of milk, fixated on the television, waiting for following day’s weather report.

Ellen politely offered me a drink, and standing in front of the wide open refrigerator door she slowly listed a range of options including, orange juice, water, beer, and milk. She added sharply, “Our milk is not organic. I don’t know if you are one of those organic people or not.” My tongue became tied and I fumbled over my words, explaining my advocacy for organic agriculture as well as my distaste for upscale marketing propaganda put out by the organic food industry. Out of nowhere Art yelled, “Milk is milk! I don’t care if you are payin’ 3 dollars a gallon for regular milk or if you’re payin’ 6 dollars for organic milk. Milk is milk!”

Ellen’s voice suddenly flared up, “I am a good mother. Do you think that I would let my kids drink milk if it wasn’t healthy?” Throwing me a curveball, Ellen looked directly at me and asked, “Are you a spiritual person?” Without a moment for me to respond she gave me her two cents on the matter. “I am firm believer that God has given us this technology. He has given us the tools to grow these crops so we are able to feed our animals and ultimately feed the world. When you are a farmer you are very close to God. He looks over the production of our food and he looks over us.” My beer went down faster; I requested another, reducing the heat of the conversation to a simmer. Gentle tones, bouts of laughter, and a few extended yawns were exchanged before Ellen showed me to a small and tidy guest room.

Perhaps it was the booze that had me feeling emotional, lying motionless and staring at the dark ceiling perplexed by my own thoughts. My journey had now started to come full circle. I had entered the Midwest where agribusiness and conventional farming was celebrated. To many, Art Thelen was a hero. A producer of food, family man, successful businessperson, and a proud father. To others (many of whom are a lot like me), Art is a polluter, factory foreman, and just a conventional farmer serving as a slave in the industrial food system. I began to feel a great deal of compassion for Art and his wife. After all of their sacrifice – hard work and dedication to the farm and family – Art Thelen still found himself under a great deal of scrutiny. As my mind swirled, I started to connect the dots surrounding the issue and realized that it was not because Art Thelin ran a farm that pollutes or because he treated his animals inhumane, which is untrue. Art Thelin is chastised because the government and large food corporations have pushed farmers, like Art, into consolidation and growth to generate inexpensive food and more profit. Anyone who has watched Food, Inc. or read The Omnivore’s Dilemma knows this.

Just before my conscious allowed me to fall into a sullen sleep, I felt more connected to Art Thelen than I was to my fellow food activists, who were busy pointing their fingers at the industrial food system. Art Thelen, was a good farmer who was doing his job and doing it well. While many other farmers were either selling out or failing miserably, he had beat the odds and flourished. Art Thelin was simply doing what he loved and what was best for his family. Most of all, he was doing what he felt God had wanted him to do. Can anyone argue with that?

Read the Unconventional Harvest series:

  1. On the Road to Find the Future of Food and Farming
  2. Grassland Organic Farm
  3. Wellspring Farm
  4. My Visit to an Amish Farm in New York
  5. Farm Sanctuary
  6. An Urban Oasis for Food
  7. Tantré Farm
  8. Conventional Dairy Farmer Art Thelen
  9. New Forest Farm
  10. A Large No-Till Organic Farm
  11. Melstone, Montana—Population 136
  12. In the Farmers Own Words

Nathan Winters rode a bicycle across America to discover first-hand why our food system had grown to be unsustainable, and to find alternative solutions. He traveled into the homes and communities of organic, conventional, urban and Amish farmers and community organizers. This ongoing series—to be posted every other Wednesday— represents select material from The Unconventional Harvest, a work in progress, by Nathan A. Winters. If you are a book publisher interested in working with Mr. Winters, you may contact him directly though his website or on twitter.

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7 Comments

  1. Dennis Nun says:

    I appreciate this story. It’s one of the most balanced I have seen. I grew up on a Nebraska farm in the 60′s and have built an agricultural supply business over the past 40 years working with guys like Art Thelen. Most of these hard-working farmers are totally offended by “organic food” activists who are quick to be critical of conventional production without having any idea of what it really takes to survive financially as a farmer in this day and age. My perspective is similar to Art’s. It’s hard to argue with his comment that “milk is milk” when you chemically can’t differentiate between organic and non-organic milk. I’m more concerned about the distribution and marketing safety than what was fed to the animal. It’s easy to be critical of conventional farms if you are uninformed. Most of us are “down on what we’re not up-on”… But from my perspective most farmers have not seen the potential of organic production, don’t have the education or tools necessary to move in that direction and don’t have the financial resources to weather the cost of transition that it entails. But more importantly, so many organizations have bastardized the “organic” label that it has totally discouraged farmers/producers and companies like ours from working with the relatively small segment of the market that make up the “natural” or “organic” producers if we wanted to.

    Let me give you an example of what we experience: We market a product called FASTRACK that I term a “natural alternative to antibiotics” for livestock. This potent “direct-fed microbial” is in fact a probiotic….live, beneficial bacteria, yeast cultures and enzymes that naturally stimulate an animal’s appetite and digestive system to do a better job of digesting and absorbing all of the nutrients in their feed and turn it into meat, milk, butterfat and protein– all natual. At the same time it stimulates their immune system and we see a dramatic reduction in fresh cow problems. Cows stay on feed and production and longevity improves. In fact, the results that this product produces, naturally, equals those of rBST (Bovine somatotropin hormone injections) gradually, over time as an expression of improved cow health. It’s a perfect product for the organic producer. But in order for dairymen who are seeking “organic” labeled production all products that they use must be screened by organizations like OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) which charge $5000 to $6000 to review your lable and put you on their list. This has become a real racket, from my perspective. If I were a producer, I would never pursue the “organic” label–too many unpredictable and questionable hoops to jump through. I work with a dairy in AZ with 10,000 head of conventional cows and 1,000 head of “organic” production cows. The manager tells me that the 1,000 are more work and effort than the other 10,000 combined. What I would do, if I wanted to pursue this market niche would be to produce “natural- antibiotic -Free” milk and market direct to the consumer –yes there are still hoops and most farmers are not able to market but integration of the production and distribution creates a much greater margin and potential for transition to a more natural product that generates more profit for the producer.

  2. Christian S says:

    “Most of all, he was doing what he felt God had wanted him to do. Can anyone argue with that?”

    World history is full of horrible tragedies perpetrated by just this sort of motivation. I have no doubt we’ll look back on the oil-driven conventional farming of the last 50 years and see it as another one.

  3. L Seger says:

    I am a food activist and a farmer. And I can argue with that.

    Commitment to and pride in a system that is not good for the long term health of animals or the land is not something to be admired, in my opinion.

    He culls his cows at 54 months? That is just about two years of unrelenting work for that cow before killing her because she doesn’t make her numbers. What on earth is admirable about that?

    You may not agree that confining animals to the indoors is inhumane, but I do. You may not think that feeding them a species inappropriate diet that often leads to gastric distress and raging e. coli populations is inhumane, but I do. Mr Thelin may not think that a cow breaking its leg is a big deal, but I do. …that it happens, on average, every other month? Yeah. kind of a big deal to me.

    My husband and I run a small-scale, humane dairy and run it profitably. It is possible to do things a better way. I’m wondering if you lived downstream of Mr. Thelan’s cow shit, fertilizer, pesticide runoff if you would still feel so warmly about him and think that he farms well.

    Nice people sometimes do objectionable things. Sometimes they know it, sometimes they don’t. Don’t let your feelings for this person cloud what you know to be true – what he does is not good for the animals, the planet or the people who drink his milk.

  4. Anna Wagner says:

    This is a good piece and I enjoyed the story. I was raised on a dairy farm that has been organic for almost 10 years but was conventional before that. It’s a small farm with only occasional seasonal outside labor. However, I’m familiar with many types of dairy operations and believe that all are good options when done correctly. Yes cows (Holsteins primarily) were bred to produce more milk but the industry responds quickly and realized that there is a point when you can breed too much for milk production
    Farmers want their cows to live as long as possible so more emphasis is. placed on a balanced cow that can produce a lot if milk but is not so frail that she is prone to injury. As someone from a dairy farm, I appreciate it when people take the effort to really learn about the industry and dairy farmers.

  5. As someone raised on a conventional wheat farm in Western Oklahoma, I come at the ‘food movement’ from a different perspective than the self proclaimed activists that have popped up in recent years. I know a lot of folks like Art, who are good people, but have led to believe that agriculture is limited to a few crops, and a few practices. One thing to note when looking at how ag got to where it is, is who showed up to help when Art had problems? Was it humorless food do-gooders that offered solutions? No, it was probably chemical and equipment salesmen, thus many in conventional ag see agribusiness as their ally, especially when the critics come out of the woodwork just cause they saw something in Food Inc.
    These are good people who deserve our respect, not condescension, and I appreciate you approaching that way. I’ve done hard work all my life, and there’s no way I could run a dairy.
    Besides, if food production ever makes the grand transformation that so many want, we’re gonna need a lot of guys like Art, I’m sure he knows more about work than most of the hipsters I’ve met. Just imagine if his energies were aimed at pastured poultry, or any number of sustainable practices!

  6. Great story Nathan. Most of all we have to remember that there are people behind the business of it all. Real people with real families who deserve our respect. While I admire Art’s work ethic and strong sense of family, there is something sad about his acceptance of the industrial food system. We can do better and as our civilization advances we must realize that technology is not the solution to all of our problems. Frankly, I don’t want to drink milk from an over-sized genetically engineered cow.

  7. Great story. It’s always good to hear the other side of the story. Though I can’t justify doing things in the name of God or religion of any form. To me that’s just an excuse.

    Yes he is doing what he “has to do” to get by and yes he might believe in it, but if people continue to do that when will change come about? People can justify what they are doing to no end by saying it’s what’s best for them and their family.

    I don’t necessarily think that he is a an inherently evil person. He has just bought into the system and believes what’s been told to him. That is true for most people though.