He may be young and have several boot sizes to grow into, but he already has a long-term career goal: taking over the family farm. His parents, Mark and Beth Heinze did just that within the last five years.
Leo’s dream, however, appeared to be a fantasy in April, 2017 after his parents, along with 70 other farmers, received a letter from Grassland Dairy stating a new Canadian dairy industry policy forced the cuts.
“We weren’t impressed with the way that Grassland handled the situation,” said Beth Heinze. “They sent us just a basic form letter. It wasn’t personally addressed to us or personally signed.”
“The company made that decision, Grassland Dairy, not one individual,” responded Grassland Dairy president and co-owner, Trevor Wuethrich in a phone interview with affiliate WSAW. “Retrospectively… I’ll be honest, we should have signed the letter.”
He explained they had to quickly figure out how to stop 800,000 pounds of milk a day from coming into their plant.
“With 48 hours’ notice, it gave us little to no time to find a home for that milk,” Wuethrich said. “We couldn’t physically process it. So, to bring it in here, we would have essentially had to dump it.”
Deciding which farms to cut, he said was a trying task.
“It was kind of like Solomon’s choice here. What baby are we going to give up? It was a tough choice, but looking at it, the farmers we chose, there were many milk markets in that area,” he explained. “There were options for those farms and that really was the deciding factor.”
Wuethrich said in April, his staff worked diligently to help find new processors for those farms, but cows produce more milk in the spring and processors were not looking for new suppliers. For two weeks, the Heinzes did not know if they would be able to keep the farm after May 1, until they were picked up by Mullins Cheese.
When asked if they heard from Grassland staff post letter, Mark Heinze replied “(a) field rep. texted me one time to tell me about the meeting that Beth and I had already set up, but that was the extent of it.”
“We’ve communicated with everybody,” responded Wuethrich. “Whether it’s been enough, obviously some people feel that way. We apologize for that. Our main focus was finding markets for those farms.”
Wuethrich said Grassland Dairy not only new about Ontario taking on the new dairy pricing policy two years ago, company leaders were outspoken, saying they did not want it being adopted nationally, which is what happened this spring.
When asked about if any type of warning could have been given to farmers this could potentially occur, prior to the 48 hours’ notice Canadian processors gave Grassland, Wuethrich replied, “No, not at all. In this situation, looking back on it, no. This was, with 48 hours’ notice and how everything played out as far as the supply and the timing, it was the absolute worst scenario possible.”
What many farmers are concerned about, however, is land purchases made within the last two years, particularly in Dunn County. Rachel Kummer, a dairy farmer, is on the county committee looking into Cranberry Creek Dairy because it has requested a DNR permit to expand from 2,100 cows to about 6,400 head of cattle and adding about 5,000 acres. She has observed Grassland representatives present at the town meetings for this expansion.
“We’ve really had a hard time with Grassland being so standoffish,” she said. “At first, they denied knowing who Cranberry Creek was at all and we had proof that they had influx money into this operation and they still, ‘Cranberry Creek, who’s that?'”
Land records obtained by WSAW show Greenwood Acres LLC, one of the Wuethrich family companies, purchasing hundreds of acres of Cranberry Creek’s land. Wuethrich told WSAW they have helped out that dairy financially, but is not commenting further about Cranberry Creek at this time.
“I feel like that’s a pretty big slap in the face when you are actively investing money into other places,” said Kummer, “even if they are just helping them out, which I’ve heard them say that they are just helping out this farm. I don’t know why they would since they were never a patron of Grassland.”
As Grassland Dairy leaders purchase land through Greenwood Acres LLC, she said she is worried about Grassland Dairy potentially controlling every step of the butter-making processing should Greenwood Acres LLC buy Cranberry Creek Dairy after expansion.
“The biggest concern for our area is the vertical integration with Grassland Dairy,” she reiterated.
The Heinze family shares that concern, especially when seeing the majority of the farmers dropped by Grassland at a meeting the Heinzes hosted.
“I remember looking at everyone at the meeting and I thought, wow, one big dairy by Grassland could just replace all of these,” said Mark Heinze.
More land records WSAW obtained show Greenwood Acres LLC, along with Wuethrich-Brothers Nebraska LLC (another Wuethrich family company) purchasing land in Clark County over the last two years as well, including about 470 acres and all of Glen Luchterhand’s 200 cows.
“They approached us because of our location mainly and a need for some of our facilities with what they planned to do,” Luchterhand recalled.
A family farm since 1950, he said it was not an easy decision to make when the offer came, but with none of his children wanting to take on the family business, nearing retirement, and the Wuethrichs presenting an offer he could not refuse, he sold.
“When it came down to it, it kind of developed into an opportunity for us, in hindsight, turned out to be very good timing,” he said reflecting.
From one family to another, Wuethrich said the Clark County acquisitions are now part of his family’s farm and the milk from the 1,400 cows there ends up at Grassland Dairy.
“We’re a family and we farm,” Wuethrich said simply, “not to be confused that Grassland Dairy owns farms, they don’t. The Wuethrich family has a farm and we always have. We’ve had one for 100 years.”
He said like any business, they are looking to expand their farming assets, adding out of the more than 600 farms supplying Grassland Dairy currently, the Wuethrich family contributes less than one percent.
As almost all of the dairies found new processors for their milk, the Heinzes hope one thing is made clear.
“These aren’t just farms, these are families,” asserted Mark Heinze. “This isn’t just a business, this is family farms; this is our legacies.”
Legacies Wuethrich said he understands, and ones that hope to live on for a little boy with a dream of the farm life.
Wuethrich said they have been in contact with government leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, along with members of the Trump Administration to push them to address the Canadian dairy industry pricing policy. He added his sales team is no longer focusing on Canadian markets, but working to develop more markets domestically. He said they have also been in close contact with the Wis. Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection since the Canadian processors gave Grassland notice. DATCP helped many of the farmers that were in limbo in April get connected with new processors.