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Siblings preserve legacy on 166-year-old family farm


Colleen Kottke   | Wisconsin State Farmer

The farmstead where Doris Priesgen grew up south of Lomira has been in her family for over 166 years. Since her grandfather moved into the area in 1854 and set down roots, the little farm tucked in the Ashford Hills in Dodge County has supported four generations.

"This farm would not be part of my life if my brother Leslie "Les" would not have taken over the responsibility to run the farm while he was still in high school when our father died," Priesgen said.

Les Schwartz said the decision to leave school in his junior year was an easy one for the teen going on 17. He had already taken on many of the chores already when his father fell ill.

"I'd get right at the chores as soon as I got home from school; cleaning the barn and milking cows," Schwartz said. "When my father died I made up my mind that I didn't want to lose the farm. My mother worked right beside me and I also had help from my Uncle John."

The workload he inherited had changed greatly since his grandfather started homesteading on 40 acres. As the years went by, his grandfather, Frank Schwartz, continued to buy up farmland in the vicinity until the farm grew to nearly 500 acres. His father, Herman and mother Agnes, added milk cows and a flock of nearly 300 laying hens that produced eggs that were sold to a grocer in St. Killian.

"We got out of the chicken business real quick in 1965 when a ball of lightning set fire to the barn they were in," recalled Les. "Luckily the cows were out in the pasture at night and the milking barn was spared. We had a hard time getting the cows to come into the barn because they could smell the dead chickens."

The farm's milk was originally hauled in 8-gallon steel milk cans via a team of horses to the nearby Golden Corners cheese factory. As small crossroads cheese factories began closing and milking herds increased in size, the Schwartz's opted to ship their milk to a larger processor.

"In all the years that I milked cows I never had a pipeline and cleaned out the barns by hand for 18 years before getting a barn cleaner," Les said. "I felt happy to run the farm at such a young age but I missed out on my teen years, 20s and even 30s."

While Doris eventually took over the cooking, one of her jobs was to bring the cows up for milking from the pasture across Highway 41, circling around the marsh.

"When I was around 10-12 years old there was hardly any traffic on Highway 41," she said, adding that the cows crossed under the roadway via a passageway. The herd eventually climbed the small drumlin behind the barn and entered the cow yard in time for milking.

Priesgen said her brother's caretaking role extended beyond the farm. As the sole driver in the family, Les willingly chauffeured her and his mother to wherever they needed to go.

"Here I was this flitting, non-stop singing 5-year-old at the same time he was taking on the rigors of farming a 200-plus acre farm and still he found time to take me to Sunday School and summer school, grocery and clothes shopping, county fairs, visiting friends and later my part-time job. He even taught me to drive," Priesgen marveled. "Les doesn't have one impatient bone in his body. I've told people we've never had an argument."

For 35 years Les continued to run the farm until Doris, then married to Joe, decided to buy the family farm.

"We always had this inkling that we wanted to be farmers for some crazy reason," Priesgen said. "Les was having a hard time with not only the unexpected loss of our mother in 1984, but a woman he cared for had died around that time also."

The time seemed right for Joe and Doris to form a partnership with Les.

"Remember, Joe was working at G&L at the time, our kids Ben and Joline were 5 and 3 and I had never milked a cow in my life. Les showed me the ropes of running a dairy herd which was up to nearly 30 cows at that time," she said. "We bought the farm in 1989 and I put in a pipeline right away."

As Les began to transition out of milking cows full time, he met his future wife, Marlene and married at the age of 49 and built a house on the adjacent property he purchased from an uncle. Out back he tends a small garden – to keep his hands in the soil – growing popcorn and sweet corn and fending off the local deer and raccoons.

He admits he had a hard time making the transition from full-time farming to being retired.

"I actually went over to a neighbor's farm and hired on to milk for him part-time. After that I picked up a couple of part-time jobs to fill the time building wooden pallets, working in the canning factory at Mayville and later working in a mill," he said. "I was used to hard work. I remember my Uncle John and I did custom work in our spare time baling hay for others. He drove the tractor pulling the John Deere wire baler while I stacked."

Back on the farm, under the care of the Priesgens the family operation began to evolve as well.

"When the sprayer broke down Joe – who was in charge of planting and harvesting the crops – decided we weren't going to use chemicals on the land anymore," she said. "We cultivated more and began working the soil differently."

The changes also extended to the milking herd, with Priesgen administering natural probiotics and using less medications. The milk produced at Country Blossoms Homestead began reaping quality premiums from their processor S&R (now Sartori Cheese) of Plymouth, Wis.

As the children got older, Priesgen decided to go back to college – while still running a dairy farm – for a degree in social work. Eventually the family sold the milking herd in 1997 and put the farm in the Conservation Reserve Program for several years.

"When that expired I didn't want to rent the farm out to someone who was going to ruin it with chemicals so we had it certified as organic in 2010. We eventually rented it out to an organic farmer," she said.

In 2015, Priesgen's son, Ben, encouraged them to consider starting up an organic marketing business using 2-4 acres of cropland around the buildings. That year the Priesgen's along with their children, Jolina and Ben and his wife, Jenny, formed Country Blossom Organics LLC.

The family grows a variety of organic vegetables with garlic being their main crop. Last year they produced 2000-plus bulbs of garlic in seven varieties. Much of the crop is planted in tiers between strips of cover crops on the side of that same hill that Priesgen led cows over many years ago. Nearby is a hoop house where they start many of their plants.

"It's one part of the farm my husband would give up," Priesgen said with a smile. "But it actually works well for us."

Down below past the barn, Priesgen's son Ben and his wife Jenny are busy picking green beans. Nearby is a plot of vegetables that the Priesgen's grow for the University of Wisconsin.

"We grow several different varieties as part of a trial. This year we're growing peppers, carrots and leeks," she said. 

What you won't see at Country Blossom Organics are neatly tilled rows in the garden.

"We do a lot of mowing between rows. We find that it helps with soil microbes better than rototilling," she said. 

The family currently provides produce to The Village Market in Fond du Lac as well as for 40 customers that participate in their CSA.

"I don't think we'll get much bigger. It's manageable right now," Priesgen said.

Both Les, 82, and Doris, 70, are proud of their farm's heritage and the legacy that they have become a part of over the years. The farm has now been honored twice with the Century and Sesquicentennial Farm and Home Award, a prestigious award presented to families during the Wisconsin State Fair who have dedicated their life to Wisconsin farming for 100 or 150 years.

"I'm so grateful that our farm has remained in the family all this time," said Les, six-time cancer survivor and father of two. "I think my grandpa and dad would fall over at just the increase in today's yields. They were happy with 70 bushels an acre of corn and now it's up around 200."

What Doris does know is that as she and her brother have grown older, their bond has grown stronger.

"Isn't it fascinating how time has created this ageless journey," she mused.

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