The Renaissance of the Family Farm

Scott Trautman is a first-generation modern-day American farmer who, with his wife Julie and their family, has created a thriving farm that is unique in its philosophy. To his knowledge, theirs is the only farm in their state (Wisconsin) that combines 100 percent grass feeding with once-a-day milking and allows the calves to stay with their mothers until weaning. Trautman feels that the combination of these three factors is essential for optimum health and vitality of the animals, the farm, the environment and even the consumer.

Modern conventional wisdom asserts that the only viable economic model for farming is the large corporate factory farm. While the great majority of cows in the United States are contained in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and fed high-protein corn, grain and inexpensive byproducts of other industries, a fortunate few like those at Trautman Family Farm near Madison, Wisconsin, get to roam the pastures and dine on forage—their natural diet. Making sure the ruminant animals eat only forage does not seem to make immediate economic sense. The practice of pasturing demands the initial expense of more acreage per cow, the ongoing expense and effort of repairing and then maintaining soil fertility, and the balancing of forage crops for optimum nutrition. Yet evidence suggests its benefits to everyone from the cow to the consumer and the environment are priceless (see “Bovine Methane: Just a Lot of Hot Air?).

To this end, Trautman begins with the soil, which he calls “the stomach of the world.” When he acquired the farm, the soil had been depleted following decades of abuse. In eight years, he has actively rebalanced the minerals of the soil and brought the organic matter from a sadly deficient two percent up to around four percent, with his final goal of five percent organic matter clearly within reach. Once the soil is healthy, Trautman feels that by using the animals’ natural habits and waste products, they will have little need to supplement the soil. The model seems to be working. The fields are lush and healthy, the animals that feed on those pastures are healthy, and their products are healthful for the consumer.

The grass-fed meat, pastured chickens and eggs from the certified organic farm may cost more to produce than today’s standard CAFO products, but Trautman is adamant that this reflects added value. “We sell 100 percent of our farm’s bounty direct to customers, who can’t get enough of what we do,” he says. Indeed, studies show that clean raw milk from pastured, grass-fed cows has a higher percentage of protein, and beneficial fatty acids like omega-3 and conjugated linolenic acid (CLA). European studies show that consumption of farm milk reduces asthma and allergies. Unpasteurized (raw), non-homogenized milk retains natural lactoferrin (a component of the immune system that battles infection, inflammation and cancer while helping the body absorb iron), beneficial digestive enzymes like lipase and protease, and friendly flora like lactobacillus (which creates lactase, aiding in the digestion of milk) to help boost the body’s immune and digestive systems. Raw, unprocessed milk from pastured cows is a natural probiotic. Considering this understanding it may seem ironic that Wisconsin, along with most other states, has stringent laws regulating the sale of raw milk.

With a relatively small customer base, Trautman feels a strong responsibility for the safety of the farm’s products. Cleanliness and sanitation, overall farm health and the health of the soil all contribute to food safety. And with one family farming 110 acres—knowing the names, personalities and preferences of all the cows—any potential problems are likely to be noticed right away and rectified. “That is way better than 300 million eggs or 327 million pounds of ground beef in the other systems,” he insists. “When it’s your meal, your customers’ meals, knowing it’s your responsibility, you look at it very closely.”

Trautman feels a responsibility to the future as well. “I’m always hoping to see the kid leaning on the fence, hoping for a ride on my tractor. That’s the future—the next generation.” He speaks of the joy of time spent working with his family on the farm. “It’s not about ‘let’s take a vacation so we can spend some quality time together.’ It’s about those simple moments of togetherness. Like when my wife, our family and I work together: it’s Team Trautman. There is a comfort, a pleasure, in knowing we are getting something worthwhile done and spending time together. When ‘the cows are out’—everyone springs to action and works together. I recognize those moments, in the moment, for the true pleasure it is: the real life in between the tasks of life. I take great pleasure in the synchronicity we have, the synergy—the whole is definitely much greater than the parts; what any of us could accomplish separately.”

Trautman’s vision for the farm does not end with himself. “My children are interested in farming as their livelihood. I am consciously working towards that. Step one: Treat our farmland well, so they can see how lush and productive it is, and better every year. Step two: Sell our products for a fair price, and let them see how people love what we do and aren’t afraid to say so, and step three: We involve them in the farm, helping make decisions, explaining everything, and designing everything so they can participate, to the farm’s profit.”

Beyond his family, Trautman is calling for a renaissance of sorts. He encourages others to join his efforts and start farming before it’s too late. “I am working toward more farms in this area now. You see, in the next 10 years, the older farmers still hanging on will retire, and their lands will go the way so many others have gone. Farmland separated from farmstead. Every tree ripped out to create bigger, flatter fields of corn, barns torn down, life from that farm gone forever. Sold to the developer—the memory of these great farming legacies gone forever, not even their names remembered.”

As an alternative, Trautman encourages others to try a new way of farming—to learn new ways along with relearning old ways that have been largely forgotten.

I will tell potential farmers, it does take quite an investment on our part, and a couple years to reawaken the soil life, and we go in the hole to do it. A partnership is required if we are to undo all the farming mistakes of the past 50 years. Nature is so amazingly resilient if you only listen and provide the little it needs. We have to work together—like our grandfathers did—yet with the intelligence and efficiency of the modern world, and the best of the culture of the 1950s.

We don’t need all those chemicals, we don’t need antibiotics either. It wouldn’t help: we have excellent health in our animals, nice yields indeed in our crops, like your grandfathers who didn’t have all those tools: They figured it out if they wanted to stay farming, and we have too. We know so much more than even five years ago. This is smart farming: smart enough to make a living, be happy and not put the cost of our living now on future generations.”

Against all odds, the Trautman Family Farm is successful and self-sustaining. The lessons that can be learned from this farm are far-reaching, looking back to ancient wisdom and ahead to a better world.

I speak about being rich and poor in a different way than most,” says Trautman. “We are rich. Not in a money sense, but in life. Those that can only make decisions based on things and money and the present are far poorer than us. We plant trees and make plans that will benefit those beyond my generation, rather than just doing things cheaply to last just this year or just our lifetime. We’re happy, and we see a beautiful future we are going to create.”