Bruce Drinkman on his farm in Ridgeland, Wisconsin. Photo © Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Blog | September 12, 2019

Bruce Drinkman: Once and future dairy farmer

by Jennifer Fahy

Wisconsin farmer Bruce Drinkman gave up being a dairy farmer, but not for the reasons you might think. It was 2013 and Bruce was receiving upwards of $32 per hundredweight for his organic milk. It was a good time to be a dairy farmer, and a bad time to need shoulder surgery. “I was forced out because of my health. After I injured my shoulder, I could no longer do the work. So, what choice do you have?” Bruce and his wife Mari had always farmed side by side, but he felt he couldn’t put all the work on her alone. So, they sold their cows, and Bruce focused on increasing his mobility so he could get back to farming again.

Bruce took several jobs during that time, working on a beef feedlot, milking cows in a parlor, repairing cars and at a tractor salvage yard. He credits those jobs with reminding him how much he loves working with cattle and caring for the land. The feedlot job strengthened his love for animals and reinforced how much he believes in grazing as the best way to raise them. The dairy job was with a farmer who was “a really good grazier; he reminded me of where my heart was at.” And milking cows again was the best physical therapy, Bruce says. The auto repair job just showed him he preferred working on farm equipment!

Bruce Drinkman and his companion, Betty Jo Johnson, stand in the hayloft designed to hold about 10,000 bales of hay at the farm in Ridgeland. Drinkman, a former dairy farmer, purchased this small farm in Dunn County. Photo © Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Six years later, Bruce is giving dairy farming another go on a new farm, named Trying Again Farm, in Ridgeland, Wisconsin. It’s a smaller place than his last farm, with enough acreage to raise between 35 and 40 cows. “Bigger isn’t always better,” Bruce says. “One person can only do so much work. With this number, I can do a good job.” Having lost Mari nearly two years ago, Bruce is starting over on his own, but with a strong network of friends and colleagues who give him the kind of support Bruce has been giving to the farm community over many years.

Bruce got his start as a farm activist and advocate a bit unintentionally. “My good friend John Kinsman of Family Farm Defenders invited me to a dairy event in LaCrosse. I was just there to watch, but another friend greeted me upon arrival by saying, ‘You’re up next to speak.” Bruce didn’t have any remarks prepared, but “I guess I did alright. I made the local news and the speaker after me was Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack,” Bruce laughs. “As we passed on stage, he told me, ‘You’re going to be a tough act to follow!’”

“I try to stick to family farm issues. I don’t exclude conventional farmers. We’re all farmers first; our management style comes second. I’m trying to make it better for all of us.”

Bruce was active in the creation of rules around organic dairy practices, including one that’s mired in controversy right now: The National Organic Pasture Rule (which stipulates that ruminant animals must graze pasture during the grazing season for their geographic region, which must be at least 120 days per year, and additionally animals must have year-round access to outdoors. Large-scale organic dairies are accused of flouting this rule.). This time around Bruce will be an organic farmer again, and he’s working now to transition his land and crops to be certified organic. But in his advocacy work Bruce says, “I try to stick to family farm issues. I don’t exclude conventional farmers. We’re all farmers first; our management style comes second. I’m trying to make it better for all of us.”

That’s a hard job right now, according to Bruce. “A lot of the farm policy reforms and programs that came about after the 1980s farm crisis have evaporated. There’s a lot more private lending now, and the rules that made it possible for farmers to obtain fair credit through the Farmers Home Administration don’t apply to private lenders.” In addition, Bruce says, “We’re losing a lot of brain power in those programs that kept a lot of farmers alive over the years.” To do his part, Bruce has been a referral for Farm Aid’s hotline in recent years, willing to talk to dairy farmers who seek advice about keeping their business going in the tough economy they’ve faced since 2013 or just to be an empathetic listener. “I do what I can help the farmers. I just spoke the other day with a farmer who will have to sell his farm, but he will be able to get out from under his cloud of debt and move on.” He says, “But now comes the second part of it—dealing with the loss of a multigenerational farm. You can wallow in your poor spirits or you try to move forward. And you can do a little of both—I sure have.“ Bruce knows that pain firsthand having sold the 120 acres that came down through three generations of Drinkmans before him.

“Consolidation is the downfall of this country. It is not good for rural America, and it’s not good for farmers.”

Living in rural northern Wisconsin, Bruce has seen the impact of agricultural policy that has not worked in favor of independent family farmers. “I’ve watched a lot of good, hardworking people pushed out of work because of poor policy. All they wanted to do was pay their bills and put food on the table.” Bruce believes strongly that “consolidation is the downfall of this country. It is not good for rural America, and it’s not good for farmers.” He laments that people don’t have a real grasp of how cheap their food is, and what that means for farmers and rural communities. “And in dairy, most people have the illusion that their milk is coming from Bruce’s small farm with 30 cows on pasture. That’s not true anymore. But I believe it can be that way again.”

In addition to his affiliations and roles with the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (MODPA), Family Farm Defenders and National Family Farm Coalition, Bruce is deeply involved with the Methodist Church, and you’ll often find him working as a worship leader on Sundays. Here he’s found another circle of friends—mostly people from urban areas. Bruce takes the opportunities to share his experience with them about living in a farm community. He relates this kind of connection to the outreach and exchange needed in the farm community. He says, “We need to do all we can to get farmers active in their future. We can respectfully disagree, but we’re in the same boat together. It’s going to take collaboration to move forward.” And he adds, “It’s going to take collaboration to move together as a country.”

Bruce Drinkman looks around the milk house that needs to be cleaned and painted. Photo © Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

One can’t help but wonder, with the price of milk so low now, why Bruce would want to get back into dairy farming. “I don’t know if the market will open up for me again. That’s about as tough as knowing how many dairy farmers there will be a year from now. It’s a cloudy situation.” The thing is this: Bruce is an incredibly optimistic, hopeful person. He calls it “one of the traits of a farmer. They know it’s never going to be the same day.” Meaning, it might be bad today, but it may not be tomorrow. He says, “It might be raining, or it might be sunny. You might be rich… But if you’re a farmer you know that won’t be true,” he laughs. But he’s quick to add, “Farmers are rich in their own unique way—in their spirit. In their willingness to do a job that the majority of people in this country don’t want to do anymore.”

Bruce’s new farm will continue his efforts to work for clean water, and for the reduction and eventual elimination of pesticides and herbicides; it will show that animal agriculture, when done right, is “as close to perfection as you can get.” He sees the current situation in the dairy industry as a much-needed course correction. “We’ve got to get more cattle back to grazing, we’ve got to support family farms, we’ve got to abandon CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] and feedlots. That will help us manage our production so we don’t have oversupply. Bigger is not always better, and we’re seeing the results here in Wisconsin in the contamination of our groundwater and wells and in our streams and lakes.” But reflecting his statement that “farmers always hope for a better tomorrow,” he says, “Mother Nature has a way of regenerating herself. We have to help a little, but nature can be reclaimed.”

Bruce shared an outline of his story before his interview with Farm Aid. Reading it again after our conversation, it feels a bit like a To Do list that he’s set for himself. It’s ambitious and hopeful and just the kind of To Do list that this country needs, and that this Farmer Hero can achieve.

  • Lifetime dairy farmer, almost 40 years
  • Hoping to restart with 35-40 cows
  • Have been a farm advocate for at least 15 years.
  • Work on local and national policy
  • Have made many dear friends in this work.
  • Hate the destruction of our rural communities for the profits of the corporate community.
  • We need to get more farmers involved with their future.
  • Won’t go silently.
  • Still believe that we are capable of the American dream.

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