NEWTON, Wis. — Just like the crops they grow, so has the appreciation and respect the Fitzgerald sisters have for one another.
Now grown and married, Stacy Klotz, 31; Kelly Goehring, 42; and Julie Maurer, 43,work together in partnership with their parents — Jim and Sandie Fitzgerald — to run Soaring Eagle Dairy in Newton.
"Ever since we were little kids, we all pitched in," Klotz said. Whether it was milking cows or picking up another chore, the sisters were kept busy on the farm, which has changed over the years. Their paternal grandfather, John, who began by milking eight cows by hand when he was 18, later started the farm with his son, Jim. The farm is now home to 1,150 cows.
As they graduated from high school, Goehring, Klotz, and earlier their father, took the 16-week Farm and Industry Short Course program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison following high school. Goehring was the first daughter to join the family farm as a partner in 1997. Klotz and Maurer followed in 2005.
"I've always enjoyed working on the farm, taking care of the cows," said Klotz who was involved with FFA growing up, along with Goehring. All the sisters were into 4-H and showing cattle at the fair.
Goehring's connection to the farm never wavered, she said.
"I always liked the farm," she noted. "I always say cows don't talk back. They kick, but they don't talk back. ... I've never left the farm."
Maurer, on the other hand, found herself looking beyond the hay bales for a different career path. She spent 11 years as an accountant before returning to her roots.
"I had absolutely no desire to farm when I left high school," Maurer confessed. "I was always told that if I ever left there would always be a place to come back to."
Every two to three weeks, there's a partner meeting to discuss farm business. There are two other siblings — Nick Fitzgerald who has worked steadily on farm for a year and Tammy Madson — who aren't currently partners. The current partners have decided that a two-year commitment to working on the farm is necessary before attaining partnership.
The farm has grown into1,000 milking cows. Milkings happen daily at 2 a.m., 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
"We all have things that we're responsible for, but they blend into each other," Maurer said.
Goehring and Klotz deal mainly with breeding, calving and sick cows, while Maurer fills in as needed, but coordinates employees, the parlor, supplies, Department of Natural Resources reports, land conservation and contracts.
They all chip in on tasks like picking rocks.
"When you're done, it's the best feeling in the world," Maurer said with a sigh. She enjoys being a part of the farm's operations.
"Every decision you make, you are the beneficiary or not of that decision," she said. "Your end product is so rewarding." Working outside with the animals and being a part of food production are "pluses" to Maurer.
"Every day is something different," Goehring said. "One day you come in and you're treating a cow and working with the vet, and the next crops."
Klotz enjoys "not sitting in an office all day."
Of course, there's also the occasional difference of opinion to deal with.
"It happened the other day, mom drove the tractor away from me," Goehring joked while describing a disagreement that occurred during a recent rock picking.
"You have to learn to let little things go," Maurer explained. "With family, you know what makes them tick and ticks them off!"
"It kind of just comes down to talking it out and sitting on it for a while," Goehring shared.
During their youth, the sisters recall time spent away from the farm was not in abundance, but they did have their moments.
"They were tied to the farm almost 365 days (a year)," Maurer recalled of her parents operating the farm. "There was enough family involved that you could have a quality of life though." The sisters remembered trips to McDonald's after church and a road trip to Florida, but vacations were sparse.
"It's easier for us to take a day off now," Goehring said.
One thing making it easier has been advances in the industry.
"There's just so much science and technology," Maurer noted. "That's crazy information we didn't have when we were kids." For example, the farm is now able to rank cows by genetic potential.
The farm went from utilizing rubber mats and tie stalls to converting to sand-bedded free stalls so the cows are able to walk around, which created a healthier environment, Goehring explained.
"It's like living on a beach," she said.
The sisters say life on the farm taught them a sense of responsibility and work ethic.
"We all just learned to work hard," Goehring added. "Whether we went out and stayed out until midnight, we still had to get up at 4 a.m."
They also learned from their parents to give back and help out when they could thanks to their Christian upbringing.
"We're fortunate that we were brought up that way," Goehring said.
The family also has learned to roll with the punches when environmental factors turn against them.
"In the good years you have to prepare and know that there are going to be bad years," Maurer said.
"You have to make adjustments," Goehring added. "I always say farming is my gambling. ... In a year's time, my god do we make adjustments."
The sisters had a positive example of what was possible for them in their mom, Sandie.
"We're all very strong and good dairy women. We had an excellent female role model growing up," Maurer said of her mother who raised five children while handling farm duties including: bookkeeping, driving tractor and cutting hay. "I think that's part of what shaped us all."
And, for those who may doubt that these strong-willed sisters can't handle being farmers as well as men can, they don't let that stop them.
"We do the same stuff," Klotz said. "We do. We work as hard as they do."
"The cows still have four udders!," Goehring joked.
"At the end of the day, if you don't want to play, I'll take my bat and ball, and play somewhere else," Maurer added.
She and her sisters invite the public to come and see their operation firsthand for those interested in learning more about agriculture.
"There's a lot of responsibility, but there's a lot of reward," Maurer said.
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by HTR Media.