Back when she lived at home, University of Wisconsin junior Lexi Schank always had a daily checklist of things she needed to do. Eat breakfast? Check. Pack homework? Check. And of course, she had to feed the calves.
Hailing from Arcadia, Wisconsin, she grew up on a 1,500 acre farm that made its way through four generations of Schanks, culminating in a grand total of 106 years the family has called the farm home. Schank calls herself an outspoken and deeply proud member of the population that gives this state its license plate tagline — because beyond being home of the Badgers, Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland.
Because she’s proud of her farming stock and Badger identity alike, Schank has taken advantage of the opportunities UW offers — she’s picked up majors in biology and life science communications and a certificate in food systems to boot. Having lived in the Women in Science and Engineering learning community her freshman year, she’s now a Peer Advisor to the very same. She’s even a Teaching Assistant for a class on global food security.
Despite all of her involvement here, however, she hasn’t forgotten her farming roots. Schank strives to make her background known as something she cherishes, and ties it into her life here in Madison as she’s able.
But like many students at UW, coming to the state’s flagship university from her rural town meant leaving the farm she loves and coming to the city. And in the city, as the rural rumors seem to go, there isn’t much whim or knowledge about the farms the state relies on.
Beyond Schank’s self-described “bubble” of agriculture, sometimes it feels like where she came from and what farmers do gets lost in the shuffle. And for the students on campus who hail from those roots, that’s a problem.
UW junior Jenny Zinniker, like Schank, grew up on a small family farm. Originally from East Troy, Wisconsin, the mere 75-minute drive from Madison she takes to get home means a whole change in scenery.
Zinniker said there are “a lot” of farmers where she’s from, and her family is no exception. They run an 160-acre farm that her great-grandfather purchased in the 1940s, meaning that like Schank, the farm has been passed down, generation after generation, for members of the Zinniker family tree to tend to.
Her family’s farm in particular houses cattle for beef, chickens for egg production, pigs for pork and her dad’s cousin grows beans on their property. And to top it off, they also sell honey.
The Zinniker farm is very much a family effort. Zinniker said her dad’s been working the farm his whole life.
“He works 100% full time on the farm. He’s never done anything else,” she said.
And her mom, despite a ten-year stint where she worked part-time elsewhere, currently works full-time on the farm as well.
“I was also definitely very involved with farm work growing up, too,” Zinniker said. “When I was much younger, there were always smaller chores to do like collecting eggs or something simple.”
As she got older, she moved into more advanced tasks. She started driving tractors, helping cut and bale hay and trimming fence lines.
“And then I started working on the farm during summers as my full time job in high school, when I was around 14,” she said. “Every summer during high school, that was what I did.”
Her family’s farm is unique in that it practices biodynamics, a philosophy Zinniker said is not particularly common but is practiced by some farmers, like her parents. Founded by Rudolph Steiner, it has vast similarities to organic farming. Uniquely, though, it treats factors like soil health, plant growth and livestock care as ecologically interrelated.
Zinniker’s family, as a biodynamic farm, utilizes biodynamic “preparations.” Those consist of mineral, plant or animal manure extracts usually fermented and applied, and aren’t chemically-based — on the Zinniker farm, she said they use substances like oak bark or manure. And, as part of her work, she helped out with those, too.
“I think a lot of my background kind of facilitated my movement into environmentally-focused majors here,” Zinniker said.
At UW, Zinniker is pursuing majors in both Environmental Studies and Community and Environmental Sociology.
Beyond the work she does for her majors, Zinniker delved further into agriculture with her campus activities. She works as one of the Garden Directors for F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, a student organization funded by segregated fees that grows and distributes crops at no additional cost to students.
“Basically, what F.H. King does is we have a one-acre plot out on the Eagle Heights community garden, and we manage it. Everything we do is designed to go back to the student community to benefit from because they’re funding what we do,” she said. “We have a couple other programs, too — we do some internship programs, we have farm hands in a normal year come out to the garden and help out, we have Urban Agriculture Directors who sometimes do hydroponics, or we have a compost route to pick up compost from local businesses.”
Despite her campus involvement, Zinniker said it’s hard to gauge sometimes just how widespread — or not — the discussion on agriculture and farming is on campus. In the agriculture circle, she said, it can feel like people are talking about it, but that doesn’t mean everybody is.
Zinniker noted that when she thought about just how many majors and schools there are at UW, with so many that don’t discuss agriculture at all, it adds up. And in general, she said, “there’s a huge disconnect between people and agriculture and how food gets to them.”
“It kind of seems like if you’re in the bubble, you’re in the bubble,” she said. “And I think just in general there has to be a societal shift towards acknowledging farmers. I think it is very important to know where your food comes from, or even just be aware of how big of a food web it is.”
Zinniker added that that doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money — if you can’t afford local-grown, that’s okay! But generally, she urged students to try and be mindful.
“If you can’t afford to get locally produced food, just be aware of what you’re buying, and how that impacts people,” she said. “I think some of it’s just about appreciating whatever you’re eating. Know that someone put in some really hard work and a lot of people put in effort to get that to you.”
For Schank, life on the farm consisted of more and more duties as she got older. After starting out feeding calves — who are “super cute” and just as cuddly as pictures would have you believe — she moved on to giving animals vaccinations, driving tractors to help with harvest and working in the milking parlor eight hours a day, at least once a week.
But when she came to UW, Schank did so in pursuit of a future that would allow her to remain involved with agriculture but also integrate her other interests, like teaching, communicating and a lifelong love for science.
“I knew coming to Madison that I don’t necessarily want to be a farmer forever, but I want to stay connected to agriculture in some way,” she said. “And I’ve found that I think I want to do that by educating other people, because I realized that not a lot of people here understand where their food comes from. Family farming is so different from the huge factory farms people see in the media, so it made me even more passionate about my past and growing up on the farm and my experiences. I really want to be able to share that with other people because I think it’s very valuable to know where your food comes from and how it’s produced.”
Schank’s knowledge is a product of her past, and especially to those who have no experience with farming or agriculture — she knows her chops. And considering unfortunate big-city stereotypes about farmers and education — or a lack thereof — she explained just how many complexities there are that involve things like math and science.
“My family lives in a pretty hilly area, and we’re also right next to a river,” she said. “So because of those factors, we have to be very careful about anything that we’re putting on top of the land, any manure, or fertilizer or pesticides. Farmers actually have to stick to very strict regulations about what you’re putting on the soil so that those things don’t run off into the water or leach into the soil. So we’re actually constantly testing the soil, we measure and use the slope of the land in calculating how much of a certain nutrient does this soil need, and how much can we safely put on it. We do those kinds of calculations constantly.”
For Schank, who said most of what she ate growing up was the same product she helped create on the farm, knowing about where your food comes from is a given. But she realized that wasn’t the case for everyone, and wasn’t even a topic of discussion for some.
“I brought my roommate home for Thanksgiving one year, and she’s from a big city out in California and just didn’t have the same connections to agriculture as I did,” Schank said. “And it was really cool to bring her out to the farm and sit down and have a conversation about how things work and the different practices we do. And I asked her, ‘when in school did you ever have a class that talked about where your food came from, or the science behind like rotational cropping or any of that kind of stuff?’ And she thought about it and she said ‘I’ve never taken a class like that at all.’”
That’s a problem, she said, because people make decisions on what they consume on a daily basis, three times a day. And they do that without the full picture of where that food comes from or what their dollars are supporting.
In a state that consumes dairy products incessantly — as milk, cheese or even in liquors with dairy components — the life of a cow on a farm is highly relevant to what Wisconsin’s residents consume. And yet Schank said she’s found a lot of people don’t exactly know how those cows are raised, especially on family farms.
“So, the baby is born, and she’s with the mom for a few hours so that the mother can care for them at first, do all of that. But we’ve actually found that it’s safer and healthier for both the mom and the baby to move them into their own separate pens after that,” she said. “So for the first week, the calf has its own little area where it’s isolated from any other diseases, and it’s getting milk straight from its mother, because it has those important nutrients that they need when they’re young to build a healthy immune system.”
After that, the calves are then taken to a different barn, where they’re in groups of around 20. Schank said the calves run around and play with each other — their job, as she puts it, “is to be happy, healthy cows.” They’re also chipped, and those chips can be scanned to tell the farmer about the calves’ health.
For the first couple months of life, she said, the cows drink a milk replacer. They then transition to solid feed, and Schank’s family moves the cows into groups of about 25 in larger pens. She said that up until about two years old, “the cows’ job is to grow and eat and play.”
Then they’re bred, they give birth, and after they start giving milk, they get milked three times a day. Schank said the cows can give 85 pounds of milk per day, per cow — on their farm, they can fill up a big semi-truck tanker daily.
At UW, Schank said, there are “definitely” classes she’s taken that discuss those topics and highlight agriculture and farming. But she wishes they were mentioned more, because it felt like the people in them were people already invested in farming and agriculture.
“I’ve realized that not many people are educated at all about where their food is from. And I think that’s also true here at the university,” she said. “I think I’ve been able to specifically find classes on those issues because of my background and my interests, so they talk about agriculture and food a little more because that’s what I’m passionate about. But I really have to seek out those classes, because they’re not widely discussed.”
And the result of that, Schank says, is many of her peers in these classes are ones already in the “bubble” of agriculture and farming — the students who already knew they cared about those issues and took the time to find those classes themselves.
A Wisconsin Promise
Associate Dean for External Relations and Advancement at UW’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Heidi Zoerb said CALS “has a number of majors that would directly prepare someone for a career in farming,” listing Dairy Science, Animal Science, Agronomy and others.
Zoerb also noted some majors are useful in the business aspect of running a farm, like Agricultural and Applied Economics or Agricultural Business Management.
But the UW System has a unique, lesser-known facet that allows for a deep dive into education on learning how to run a farm — the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers.
WSBDF Director and Academic Staff at UW Nadia Alber said WSBDF was started in 1995 as a training and mentoring program for beginning dairy farmers, with other livestock added later on. Alber said, in fact, at the time several farmers had asked the state legislature for programming at UW that supported small or medium-sized farmers with niche markets, like grass-fed or organic.
“The school has been designed to provide the opportunity for motivated individuals to educate themselves about pasture-based dairy and livestock farming,” Alber said. “We offer our specialized training through traditional classroom activities, hands-on internships and farm tours of pasture-based farms managed by successful graduates and mentors. We strongly emphasize the business and financial planning knowledge required to run a successful farm business, as well as pasture and nutrient management.”
Alber said classroom instruction at the school typically runs from the middle of November through the end of March, with some students participating in internships from April through July. The school also offers both their courses online.
She said the school has seen “high school students enroll and even 60-year-olds interested in the grazing concept.” They’ve had students “who were computer programmers and never set foot on a farm and those who had a 2,000 cow dairy [farm] and wanted to learn more about how to pasture their young stock.” But regardless of their backgrounds, they were invested in farming.
Alber said there aren’t any programs quite like UW’s — there’s the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, an earn-while-you-learn, two-year paid apprenticeship in dairy farming. But it’s not the same, which means the UW System has a unique program that caters to its unique population.
WSBDF courses can also be used as credits toward this apprenticeship program, according to Alber, so it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
She said the school, and the industry, might be more relevant right now than people realize.
“Now could be as good a time as any to start farming, [though] of course make sure to educate yourself first!” Alber said. “Interest rates are low and people are looking to buy local, grass-fed meats as well as local vegetables. The COVID pandemic has been quite a boon to some small or medium-sized farms.”
For Schank, the difference between these small and medium farms versus factory farms is huge — those in the business of family farming rely on their land for their food, their home and their source of income. Supporting these farms, she said, is crucial, especially during the pandemic.
“It’s important to know that farmers love what they do and the land that they live on is their livelihood so they’re doing everything they can to produce safe, healthy food without damaging that land,” she said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge farmers and their roles and if you don’t know that stuff, try and be mindful and learn about it.”