A Family Affair
The Blanchard family sticks together to thrive in an up-and-down industry.
By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Christy Couch Lee
In 1986, with dairy prices in a sharp slump, Ronald Ketelsen decided it was time to quit the business. The federal government was offering a “whole-herd buyout.” As part of the program, individual farmers offered the government a price each would be willing to accept to walk away from his or her herd. Ketelsen’s bid was approved, his herd was slaughtered and no cow would be allowed to be milked on his dairy for five years. That, he figured, would be the end.
But his daughter Mitzie Blanchard had other ideas. Five years to the day after the buyout, she moved back with a small herd of cows and her four sons.
Her sons were “raised on the dairy,” Mitzie says, and began milking, feeding and herding cows at a very young age. “It’d probably be frowned on in today’s world,” Mitzie acknowledges, laughing—as she so often does. “But evidently it was a good life, because they wanted to do it, too,” she says of her boys and their decision to remain in the family business. Today, three of those four sons, along with a nephew who was essentially raised as a son, work full time on the farm.
When Mitzie decided to move back to her father’s farm in Charlotte, Iowa, in 1992, he discouraged her. It was a tough business, and he worried that his facilities were too old.
“But I was a determined young gal and decided I would show him,” she says. She started with 45 cows, but slowly grew—“baby step to baby step,” she says. Now, she and her sons have a herd of 1,300, the majority of which are Holstein-Jersey crossbreeds. The family also farms 1,300 acres, mostly corn, alfalfa and triticale.
A dairy of this size is a complex operation. Cows are milked three times a day, a process that requires round-the-clock workers on seven-hour shifts. (The dairy has two milking parlors; one can accommodate 10 cows at a time, and the other can accommodate 40.) Passed through a chiller, the milk’s temperature is lowered from 100° to 36°F. Then it’s sent through the milk line directly to a truck, and onto shelves within 48 hours.
Meanwhile, cows in various life stages need to be tended: Young heifers are shipped to a heifer raiser, where they will be bred to calve. Cows are calving year-round, at a typical rate of 30 to 40 each week. “I could never do it all if I didn’t have my boys to do it with me,” Mitzie says.
The “boys,” as Mitzie calls them, got started early. While in high school, they began to use their savings from money earned at the dairy to buy their own cows. Those early experiences were formative. “From the day I was born, I knew what I was going to do,” says BJ, Mitzie’s oldest son. “I just liked working outside.”
Now, everyone seems to have found the role that suits their interests and talents. BJ takes a leadership role, especially in farm aspects outside the dairy—from monitoring feed and managing manure to overseeing crops. Seth works as a laborer; Brian runs the shop, maintaining equipment. Brent—“the baby,” as Mitzie calls him—is gradually taking over Mitzie’s role as the herdsman.
The farm became a limited liability company in 2003, when the Blanchards put up a 500-cow barn, their first major expansion. (Another 500-cow barn was added in 2012, and in 2014, the second, larger milking parlor was added.) When the LLC was formed, the family accountant suggested that the boys, then between 13 and 21 years old, become official co-owners of the farm. Their individual cows were merged into the family herd.
The Blanchards already are implementing a simple succession plan: Each year, Mitzie gifts a portion of her shares to her sons, distributed evenly. The amount of shares she distributes each year depends on the farm’s finances, but Mitzie always gives “what Uncle Sam allows without a tax liability,” as she puts it.
“As I’m starting to slow down—it’s nice to watch them, year by year, take over the management of it and make those decisions,” Mitzie says. “It’s nice to see that [the dairy] will continue.”
Through the years, the Blanchards have aimed for slow growth in their herd. But in late 2017, the cooperative they belong to instituted a production cap. In response, the Blanchards have begun to breed some cows with beef semen to sell feeder calves with better beef characteristics.
It’s just the latest challenge in an often precarious business. The global price for dairy can swing rapidly, often due to international politics. The worst year, at least in terms of the dairy’s business, was 2009. After hitting record highs a few years earlier, milk prices plunged by more than 50%. Some farmers were losing as much as $200 on each cow each month.
Mitzie says that in important ways, 2009 was also one of her best years—because she got to watch her sons come into their own as business leaders. They had to work together to save the farm, cutting whatever costs they could, working with their bank to reclassify some of their loans as no-interest.
Success demands constant watchfulness. Twenty years ago, the Blanchards began selling a portion of their milk on the futures market—an increasingly common practice—which allows the family to lock into a desirable price, rather than being subject to whatever the market price is on the day of sale. “We try to know our cost of production, and when we see a price that we think is profitable, we start selling,” BJ says.
Given this resourcefulness, Mitzie shows no worry about the farm’s long-term future. She already has eight grandchildren, who are already falling in love with the farm. The challenge, one day, really might be how to find the right slot for so many Blanchard farmers. “But by that point, it’ll be BJ’s problem, not mine,” Mitzie says with one more laugh.