I would like to introduce Elinor Opitz (age 25) from Maple Lake, Minnesota. Elinor and her husband Mat were married nearly a year and a half ago. Their herd (11 milk cows, 14 heifers and 1 streer) is 100% Registered Ayrshires. In addition to the cows, they have a dog, Keely and three cats Princess Peach, Luke & Leia. Elinor and Mat are in the process of fixing up their farm and will start milking 30 head of Ayrshires at their farm in May 2015. Currently, the cows are milked at their neighbor Charles Krause’s dairy. They own 20 acres and rent another 20, which will be a pasture for the milk cows. The cows will be milked in a double six herringbone parlor and they have a freestall barn that could hold up to 100 cows someday.
Currently, Elinor’s milk is being sold and marketed through Dairy Farmers of America where it is made into cheese for many fast food restaurants. One of her goals is to sell dairy products directly to you, the consumer. Her favorite dairy product is cheese from Jasper Hills Ayrshire farm but also loves vanilla bean ice cream.
Elinor did not grow up on a dairy farm but according to her Dad, a “genetic defect” called the dairy farming gene really took hold of her. With my involvement with the dairy checkoff organization, Midwest Dairy, I met Elinor’s Mom, Sherry. Sherry grew up on a dairy farm with her parents and siblings in Iowa. Sherry made sure Elinor got the opportunity to lead a baby calf at the county fair beginning from a young age. As Elinor’s love for the dairy industry grew, her parents built a lean-to and converted some forest into a pasture.
Elinor attended the University of Minnesota and majored in Animal Science with a Dairy Production emphasis. After college, Elinor worked for Land O’Lakes Purina feed for a few years. In 2012, Elinor & Mat bought the farm, which was 55 miles away from her office. After a year of commuting, she was able to find her current job, one with Minnesota DHIA (Dairy Herd Improvement Association). Elinor loves being able to help and learn from other dairy farmers every day of the week. Both Elinor and Mat plan on keeping their off-farm jobs as they begin their dairy.
In her free time, Elinor is a member of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, loves reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, playing Magic the Gathering and board games with my friends, playing video games and discussing feminism & politics or listening to NPR or a classic rock station.
Elinor’s Story in her own words:
What has been the most rewarding part of farming for you? What has been the most challenging part of farming for you? Bringing a newborn calf into the world is the absolute best feeling I have ever experienced. Over the years I have worked at many farms and assisted with many births, but I can’t wait to have my own cows giving birth at home where I can be there to experience it.
The most challenging thing for me is keeping my spirits high. I am told almost daily that something I’m doing isn’t the right way, or the best way to do things. Then someone else will tell me that it’s a great idea after all. Dairy farmers are full of opinions, and everyone thinks their way is the best way. It’s great to get input on why something did or didn’t work for someone else, but in the end it’s my farm and my decision. It can be tough to keep confidence in myself. Then when you have a streak of bad luck, it can be tough not to let it get to you.
Last winter I lost three animals. One was a little heifer calf who only made it two weeks in our record-cold winter. Another was a beautiful, promising fall calf that had a freak accident during the night and I found her dead when I went to water calves in the morning. The third was a young cow with excellent genetics (a Lover’s Heligo out of Palmyra Raven S. Ginger and maternal sister to the young sire Gibbs) who was pregnant and had never had a heifer calf. She developed a kidney infection that didn’t respond to the normal treatment. We dried her up, she came home to my place to live with my heifers and I tried hundreds of dollars of different medications trying to at least keep her going until her calf could be born. After four months of daily care, she miscarried a little heifer calf and passed away a few days later. I have to remind myself that I did everything I could for those animals, and remind myself of all the times I have saved a cow, remind myself of all the happy, healthy cattle I still have.
What is your greatest achievement thus far? I think getting through our first winter here with heifers was quite the achievement. Most of the buildings haven’t been fixed up yet and there is no electricity outside. Minnesota had a record cold winter last year, with an average temperature of only 9 degrees Fahrenheit, with 46 days (out of 90) below zero. Windchills at night (and sometimes during the day!) reached -30 to -40 degrees (for any of you Celsius folks, -40 Celsius and -40 Fahrenheit are the same temperature! Brrr!)
I have been on the farm for just over two years now, slowly cleaning the place up and fixing it up. A lot of buildings needed maintenance, and of course I need to install all of the pieces of the parlor that were sold, the free stalls that were scrapped. I also need to build permanent manure storage, as there is none currently.
I have a double six parlor and I plan to milk 30 registered Ayrshires on a seasonal schedule, calving every May. My husband is an accountant, so he is very busy from January through mid-April every year. I think this seasonal schedule will mesh well with his work, as well as helping to consolidate the labor in things like breeding and calving, which will be helpful with me working off the farm.
What’s one question you always receive about what you do? Once I tell my story, the first question is “So….are you married or are you doing this alone?” Like many farmers, I am married and my spouse works full-time off the farm. This is very common! It just surprises people that in our case it’s my husband with the off-farm career and myself who is the primary farmer. I should say that although my husband has no farming background whatsoever (he never even had a pet before we bought the farm!) he does love the outdoors and he helps out when I need a hand. He still has never milked a cow, but I have high hopes for him!
Tell me a unique story about your farm? The farm we bought was in someone else’s family for over 100 years! In 2003 they quit milking, sold all the cows and the equipment and split off most of the farmland. The house, farm buildings and 20 acres were purchased by a sister and brother-in-law of the family that milked there. They didn’t do any upkeep and generally filled all the buildings with trash. They tried to sell it for a year and a half before we found it and I recognized a diamond in the rough. Our neighbors on all sides are various family members that feel very attached to the farm and we are so lucky that they are such wonderful people. Not only are they kind and welcoming, excited to see someone revitalizing the place, but they have even caught the heifers three times when they got out while I was at work!
What is one message you’d like to get across to the general public about what you do? Sometimes after talking to me, people assume that I’m “one of the good ones” or somehow an exception to the rule. They think someone like me, who is always sharing cute cow pictures and talking passionately about water conservation is some “new” or “special” kind of farmer. Not true at all! Through my connection with Ayrshire breeders and my job at DHIA, I have had the privilege to know hundreds of farmers in our state, our country and from at least four other continents and I can assure you that 99% of farmers feel the same way I do about their cows and their land. We care deeply and we are always trying to do the very best that we can. It’s a myth that the size of the farm is fundamentally connected to the care given to the animals and the land – I have seen small farms with problems and big farms with problems, and I have seen big farms that do an amazing job with animal welfare just as I have seen small farms that do as well. I may not have grown up on a farm, I may be a young woman with a small grass-fed dairy, but when it comes to attitude and values I am just like all the other dairy farmers in the world.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting into farming? All everyone is going to tell you is how hard it is, and how many obstacles you are going to face. Even the people who are excited to see a young person just starting out might shake their heads and say, “I hope you can make it, but it’s going to be really hard.” Don’t let that scare you away from your dreams! I have almost everything working against me – I have no family farm to buy into, I have a husband that knows nothing about farming and works an hour away in downtown Minneapolis, I have an “abnormal” breed of cows, my dairy farm is right next to a lake, I’ve started my herd from scratch instead of taking over an existing dairy. But guess what – there are a million ways to dairy farm. Everyone has obstacles, your obstacles might be the same as mine or totally different. Don’t let the doubters get you down. You can forge your own path, and you know best what works for you.
What is your favorite dairy-filled Thanksgiving recipe? Our family stuffing doesn’t have a recipe, but the starting ingredient is lots and lots of butter! Then add some ground beef, onions, celery, bread crumbs and lots of poultry seasoning. Just keep tasting it until it seems right.
Thank you Elinor for taking time to participate in our “30 Days of Dairy” series. We wish you much luck and success as you complete the remodel and start milking your herd of Ayrshire cattle.
Earlier “30 Days of Dairy” features this month include:
Sarah & Andy Birch – Derby, VT – the dairy farmers that were my inspiration for the 30 Days of Dairy!
Melissa Collman – Boring, OR – an organic dairy farmer from the West Coast!
Macy Sarbacker – Belleville, WI – a blogger, editor and dairy farmer from American’s Dairyland!
Karen Bohnert – East Moline, IL – a very talented writer, Mom and Jersey lover from my state!
Lisa Myers – Hamstead, MD – one of my best friends that moved back home to run their dairy!
Rebecca Schlehlein – Platteville, WI – a dedicated farm employee that loves her Brown Swiss!
Heather Moore – Maquoketa, IA – Special Events Coordinator turned Dairy Farmer!
Katie Dotterer-Pyle – Union Bridge, MD – Spanish teacher and dairy farmer that makes sure her cows enjoy their stay!
Nicole Fletcher – Southampton, MA – a Cabot Creamery dairy that milks 60 Holsteins & Jerseys.
For a listing of all the 30 Days Bloggers that Holly Spangler rounded up, visit here.