Doran Holm waited approximately two decades for a male ally (who’s still in diapers).
Those “X” chromosomes are a force to be reckoned with in this Dunn County dairy producer’s family farm—so much so that poor Doran doesn’t even get top billing in the farm name: Holm Girls Dairy.
Actually that’s just fine with dear ol’ dad, who’s more-than-willing to give credit where credit’s due. Like so many, this Elk Mound farm is indeed all about family. In fact, Doran and his wife, Mariann, would never have gotten into farming in the first place if it weren’t for their girls.
When the Holms moved from their urban lives in California to their farm 13 years ago, there were only four little Holm sisters. Today there are six—Sarah, 19, though 10 months older than her also-19-year-old twin sisters, Andrea and Erika; Laura, 16; Rachel, 13; and Mary, 12. Daniel, 2, broke the mold. Mariann is expecting another baby this fall; the world will have to wait to see whether “pink” reestablishes itself or Doran and Daniel add another baby-blue member to their far-smaller “Y” team.
Although this Agri-View editor can’t resist giving Doran a little good-natured ribbing, the Holms family is solidly one unit—and the girls are highly capable and totally deserving of having their names on this 100-acre organic dairy.
Mariann, who home-schools her blonde brood, incorporates learning into all facets of her family’s day, which includes a graduated set of ever-more-challenging responsibilities on the farm for the girls—from milking chores for the younger three to herd records and financial/tax bookwork for Erika, who is a business management major at UW-Eau Claire. Sarah and Andrea also attend UW-Eau Claire. The three sisters live at home and commute together to college. Sarah is pre-law. “She wants to rewrite the farm bill,” says Mariann of just one of the lofty aspirations typical of an oldest-child overachiever. Andrea is studying chemistry.
On the morning Agri-View visited Holm Girls Dairy, Laura was just finishing frying some eggs for breakfast before hurrying off to town on an errand for her dad. The younger girls had just come from milking with their dad and took turns watching their little brother so Doran and Mariann could chat uninterrupted. It was a busy household, but as Mariann notes, one in which each girl is expected to be “productive” and not “waste their time.” There’s ample opportunity on a farm to pursue individual interests, apply knowledge and learn a passel of transferable skills—not to mention perseverance and a work ethic.
Neither Doran nor Mariann were farm-raised. Mariann grew up near Hudson, but was in the 4-H horse project. She says Doran had to do some serious convincing when he decided to switch careers. She admits that as a kid, she wanted to marry a farmer, “But as an adult, I got scared!” Farming presented a huge learning curve for she and Doran.
Doran grew up in Stillwater, Minn., but he explains, “When I was a teenager, Dad got a milk route in this area,” (leaving a career as an engineer to return to his milk-hauling roots). Doran worked for a farmer as a teenager, but graduated from UW-Eau Claire in telecommunications, though he notes, “I never worked a day in my life in that (field).” Some of his girls, though, make videos for YouTube (See “Chores at Holm Girls Dairy”).
Doran had a lucrative sales position with a firm that supplies legal research databases to law firms. Corporate America required the young-and-growing Holm family to move first to Ohio and eventually to neighborhood in Newport Beach, Calif., where Mariann felt quite alone as a home-schooling stay-at-home mom.
Maybe he was following in his father’s footsteps returning to rural roots, but Doran one night had just finished reading his girls a bedtime story (All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan) when Sarah, asked her dad if they could buy a farm. The next day he called his dad to see if there were any farms for sale in his old stomping grounds in northwestern Wisconsin. Doran says the next thing he knew, he was buying a farm over the phone.
That was 13 years ago (they’ve been milking almost 10 years now). Doran was able to secure a transfer with his legal publishing firm so he could continue in his off-farm career, which he and Mariann worked furiously to bring a non-operating dairy back to life.
Actually, Doran confides that he and Mariann had tried to identify a family business in which the entire family might worked together. “Where else can children be more helpful than a farm?” he queries. “A 9-year-old can oftentimes make all the difference in the world in getting something done.”
Today, at 48, Doran, in addition to dairying, works full-time as the Midwest North Region Pool Coordinator for Organic Valley, to which they ship their milk. (Their “back porch” also doubles as a licensed “store” to sell Organic Valley products, as well as eggs from heir 150 laying hens.) Mariann also works for Organic Valley, with marketing and its Farmer Ambassador Program, helping members throughout the Midwest “tell their story.” She says their family volunteered as farmer/ambassadors for Organic Valley and weren’t phased by going to Chicago or elsewhere, girls in tow, to represent their fellow producers to consumers.
Doran remarks, only half in jest, that it takes eight people working part-time to run their 43-cow dairy (33 milking at present).
The Holms rely on managed grazing to feed their grade Jersey herd from roughly May 1 to the end of November, at least most years. They’ve given up on making hay, preferring instead to reduce labor and their line of machinery and instead buy locally-produced organic forage for winter feeding needs. They fill a 14 X 40 silo with a mixture of corn silage and haylage. Doran has an electric mill and uses it on organic corn he buys from other growers. They feed small squares of purchased hay from the mow and round bales outside. They topdress minerals, kelp and Redmond salt. They drop grain in the major flush of grass but reintroduce it again (several pounds) as the pasture gets mature mid-summer. In the winter, a good milker might get 10 pounds of grain.
They’ve gone to grazing their pastures taller (sometimes even waist-high), following the cows with youngstock. Doran’s philosophy: “If the grass is getting ahead of the cows, they’ll catch up eventually.” Mid-summer, he clips the whole farm with a Brush Hog. Doran’s implement line-up consists of: A spring-tooth harrow for scratching up the grass if he spreads manure, a side-slinger spreader and two Brush hog mowers. He hires a no-till drill to inter-seed pastures periodically with alfalfa, clovers and drought-tolerant grasses. He describes his soil types on his hilly acreage as ‘sand, gravel and rock,” and says they could easily absorb a “half-inch of rain a night all summer.”
Doran notes that they typically have groups of organic-system cows to sell. The herd averages around 34 pounds in the winter and 40 in the summer grazing season. Their butterfat goes up to about 5.6 percent early winter, and Doran notes that Organic Valley pays a winter premium, too (so production is less concentrated in the spring flush). They milk twice-a-day year-round. They’re exclusively AI; Doran won’t have a bull with the children helping on the farm. They also have many visitors, notes Mariann.
As noted, the Holm girls spend a lot of time with the cows, which are gentle and much-loved. The girls are confident and capable in their chores. “Being able to resolve conflicts and work together is a valuable thing,” notes Mariann. Doran adds there are many “opportunities for real-life applications” out in the barn, where he pitches in to help Mariann with the home-schooling.
This farm mom views education as a three-legged stool—work, academics and service to others, whether it’s one youngster or another playing piano for the church choir, visiting someone who’s laid up or being available to babysit. The family is active in church, 4-H and their home-school group. Organic Valley, notes Mariann, is a “second family” to them, a network of “so many mentors and friends.”
Both husband and wife are passionate about Organic Valley. Doran says, “It’s a movement disguised as a business. It’s helping keep small family farms in business (over 1,600 of them in 34 states).” After having worked in corporate America where the bar is always being moved, he finds it refreshing to work for himself on the farm and to be part of an organization where a farmer can truly have influence and a say.
Mariann is equally passionate about the value of raising kids on a farm. One of this farm mom’s favorite book is Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter. There’s a speech by the mother in that book about what her girls should be able to do by the time they leave home—things like tend to the sick, set a brooding chicken and a myriad of other “life skills” that will make them “capable women.”
However, Mariann also notes it’s important to keep “bigger principals” in mind, rather than just “individual tasks”—to teach compassion and respect for life—to raise children who have a “spark in their eye” versus a “glazed-over looked.” Farming builds self-esteem in that children can see what they can accomplish, she concludes, and be rewarded with greater levels of responsibility, and it provides an opportunity to apply their learning to “something real.”