It snowed and it snowed and it snowed, and while the storms raged across Olmsted County, the Hoffman family tended their dairy herd.
Until the barn roof caved in under the weight of all that snow.
The Hoffmans lost 13 cows in the collapse and soon it was clear that they had lost much, much more.
There was no way to repair or rebuild the barn in this weather. They would have to sell off their herd.
Dairy farming is hard work. The weather makes it harder. The economy makes it harder still.
Minnesota lost 10 percent of its dairy farms last year. Even before the storm, the state was bracing to lose just as many this year.
“Dairying is in my blood,” said Gary Hoffman, 73. Every morning of his working life, starting at age 14, he rose before 1 a.m. to feed the herd and start the day on his family’s North Creek Dairy in Chatfield.
“There’s been a cow-milk on this farm every day for 114 years,” he said.
Hoffman’s grandfather bought the farm in 1905 and until last week, there was every reason to think it would pass to Hoffman’s grandchildren one day.
But Minnesota dairy farmers have been crushed by low milk prices for more than four years. Now they’re being crushed under the weight of the snow on their barn roofs.
At least 19 dairy barns collapsed across southern and central Minnesota during the February storms, the Minnesota Milk Producers Association estimates.
“We do have a lot of decisions to make about the future, about what my two sons are going to do,” Hoffman said. “There’s got to be a profit in what we do, or else why do it?”
His sons, John and Corey, run the farm and before Tuesday, Hoffman said the family was “committed and in it for the long haul.”
A reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin covered the barn collapse and described the Hoffmans greeting individual cows in their herd of 450 by sight and by name.
“Hold on,” the paper said Corey Hoffman called out to one straying cow. She halted and trotted obediently back to the barn.
But Wednesday morning, after milking, they moved the herd out of the shattered barn, loaded the cows onto trailers and sent them off to auction.
It was some consolation that the cows went to a good home at another small dairy operation run by someone they know. But Gary Hoffman couldn’t bear to listen as they were auctioned off.
For the first time in a century, there were no cows to milk at North Creek Dairy.
This is more than one family’s sorrow. The farm had nine employees who have to find new work.
The Hoffmans plan to think long and hard about whether they want to get back into the dairy business.
Lucas Sjostrom, spokesman for the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, said 313 farms went out of business last year and the state is on track to lose another 10 percent this year. Thirty years ago, the state had about 12,000 licensed dairy herds. On Jan. 1 of this year, just under 2,800 were still in business.
There are no days off on a dairy. The cows don’t care if there’s a blizzard outside. They need to be fed and milked and tended. You don’t go into dairy farming unless you really, really love it, said Sarah Schmidt, who grew up on a dairy farm and now works as vice president of public relations for the AMPI dairy co-op in New Ulm.
As the blizzard shrieked across southern Minnesota, burying roads and piling 12-foot drifts around homes and barns, 90 percent of the co-op’s members were unable to deliver their milk. Since the cows still had to be milked, many farmers who ran out of storage had to simply dump the milk, and the day’s profits.
Dumping milk amounts to “literally pouring money down the drain,” Schmidt said.
In central Minnesota, Leah Kurth’s family needed snowmobiles to reach the skid loader they used to clear the way to their herd through 10-foot drifts. The barn roof is holding up, but in weather like this, “everything takes longer, the water freezes. Just moving around is tough,” said Kurth, whose family milks about 120 cows on their farm near Cosmos.
“If you can pay the bills right now, you’re doing well,” she said. “I can’t even imagine” the added financial stress of a barn collapse. “It’s probably a pretty easy tipping point.”
Families like the Hoffmans aren’t going through the hard times alone. As news of the calamity spread, neighbors rushed to the Hoffmans, Olmsted County’s 2018 farm family of the year, to offer food, beer and help.
The barn is too unstable and snow-covered to touch until the spring thaw, but the family gladly accepted the food and beer.
On Friday, as new snow began to fall, Hoffman’s son Corey headed out to push snow off the neighbors’ roofs and keep other farms safe.