Last Thursday, during June Dairy Month, sixth generation dairy farmer Christine Leonard was guest speaker at the June Waconia Chamber of Commerce meeting.
Leonard joined her parents Tim and Amy Leonard in the operation of their dairy farm in 2016, and traced the history of the farm west of Waconia and the challenges faced by dairy farmers today.
While dairy farms dominated the landscape in Carver County for decades, there are just 60 dairy operations in the county today, according to Leonard. And that’s down a dozen from just two years ago in 2017 as dairy farmers get out of the business or retire, and their offspring pursue other careers.
Leonard has a degree in food science and had been working in related jobs when she decided to return to the family farm despite the cautions of her parents.
Dairy farms are lots of work and the sales margins aren’t great, Leonard notes. But she “loves cows” (each one of the Leonard’s cows has a name), “loves cheese and dairy,” and felt a draw back to the farm.
Leonard is a strong ambassador for the dairy industry, proud of the family farm and proud that it has been passed down on the women’s side of the family.
Leonard is a former Carvery County dairy princess (her younger sister Emily is a current dairy princess). She was a 2014 Princess Kay finalist, and shared the story of having her profile carved in butter in the dairy building at the State Fair, a long-standing tradition. After the fair run, princesses get to take home their butter sculptures.
What do you do with a 90-pound block of butter?
“Bake a lot of cookies,” said Leonard, who noted that it was “somewhat startling” to see her face staring back at her when she opened the family freezer.
In terms of the dairy industry, Leonard notes that as the number of dairy farms dwindle, the farms are getting bigger and more automated as farmers strive to compete. The average farm now has more than 180 milk cows, she said.
The Leonards milk just 45 cows, and while their operation is automated – human hands never touch the milk, she explains – Leonard is comfortable is staying small. But she recognizes that she might have to diversify to remain competitive.
The Leonards give a considerable number of tours on their farm each year, and her vision is that it could become a kind of learning hub. She has also considered some kind of cheese production or arrangement.
Leonard is exploring the possibilities, while carrying on the family tradition.