ALTURA, Minn. — Last Wednesday, for the first time in 114 years, not a single dairy cow was milked on the Hoffman family farm west of Chatfield.
"Our cows are all gone," said Corey Hoffman, who farms with his brother, John, and father, Gary. "We had no choice."
That’s because this winter’s heavy snowfall and strong winds took down the Hoffmans’ dairy barn, forcing them to sell their cows and take a hard look at the future.
The Hoffmans were one of several dairy farm families that met with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, and area legislators and ag officials Saturday morning at the Rob and Katie Kreidermacher farm near Altura. Dozens of barn roofs have collapsed in the state due to heavy snow, and southeastern Minnesota dairy farms have been particularly hard hit.
"I’ve never seen snow piled up in our yard like it is now," said Gary Hoffman. "You read about it in the paper, but until it happens to you..."
Hoffman said the family has made no decision at this point if they’ll get back into dairy farming. "That’s up to my boys and their wives," he said.
The possibility that other families will be forced to pull out of dairy farming threatens the state’s economy, Walz said.
"These dairy farms are the bedrock of the economy and their communities," he said. "What we need to do is keep these dairy farms up and running."
The damage to barns and herds, Smith said, is coming on the heels of low prices for dairy products.
"It’s a double whammy," she said.
State lawmakers are fast-tracking a bill through the Legislature to get help in terms of loans and insurance payments to the affected farmers as quickly as possible.
But, Rob Kreidermacher said, "I’m not sure how much money we can afford to borrow."
One of Kreidermacher’s barns came down the Sunday morning of last month’s blizzard. Only the help of neighbors prevented an even bigger disaster, he said.
"I was here by myself, and I couldn’t have done anything," he said. "The community, they’re the only reason we saved any animals."
He said the visit by Walz, Smith, state lawmakers and government officials sent a message that the state’s dairy farmers aren’t in this situation alone.
"It shows that people who have the power to help care," he said.
The previous weekend, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen got a taste of that when he visited Winona County.
With Petersen were Rep. Jeanne Poppe, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, Sen. Michael P. Goggin — the same lawmakers accompanying Walz and Smith — and representatives for the state’s congressional delegation.
They stopped at only two farms in Rollingstone, but Petersen said several other farmers were there to share the details of the damage they experienced.
The damage is more than structural, Petersen said.
"Keep in mind that it’s not just the roofs coming down," said Petersen. "But it’s also the bins, electricity and whatever else that will cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for farmers."
On top of the structural and equipment damage, Petersen said many farmers lost livestock. One of the Rollingstone farms visited on March 2 lost eight cows, and the other lost 13.
The surviving cows were still impacted by the collapses. They were injured or spooked, said Petersen, resulting in a loss of milk production.
The number of roofs that collapsed at dairy farms in southeast Minnesota is about 25, said Petersen; statewide, the total is closer to 50. That includes machine sheds, freestall barns and poultry barns.
"For dairy farmers, it was just another punch in the gut," said Petersen, "because they’re already having a hard time and this winter has been very difficult."
For Petersen, two things stood after meeting with farmers. First, most have no intention to stop or switch up their farming operations. Second, the emotion in the voices of farmers who were truly grateful for the support they got from the community.
"Every farmer (that was affected) told me how thankful they were to their community," said Petersen. "Their neighbors, friends and relatives all stepped in and either helped pick up their roofs, got cattle out of barns, helped do chores or brought them food or whatever they could."
Neither Petersen nor any of the farmers he’d met with could remember damage like this happening in other winters. He said barn collapses have happened in the past, but not this many, this fast.
Petersen said the Department of Agriculture encourages farmers who had storm damage to research the loans available through the Rural Finance Authority. Those loans can help pay for building and equipment replacements.
He said the department is helping with legislation to make disaster loans available — loans that would have zero percent interest.
Petersen advises farmers to document all their losses and talk to their local FSA and insurance agents to access whatever funds are available.