Jack Herricks decided at a young age that he wanted to be a dairy farmer, but as the second oldest of 12 children, he didn’t think there was room for him on his family’s small Monroe County, Wis., farm.
That all changed on June 3, 1971, when his father, Leonard Herricks, was killed in a tractor accident. A year into college, Herricks came back to the farm to help his mother, and he has been there ever since.
Triumphing over tragedy
“After a couple of months, my older brother and I sat down with our mother to discuss the future. He wanted to continue with college. I spoke up right away and said, ‘I’d really like to stay here and have a chance to run the farm,’” Herricks recalls from those tragic circumstances 50 years ago. “Some of my siblings weren’t so sure about me coming in and being their boss — that was a tough time. But we got through it, and now we all get along fine.”
Herricks is known throughout southwest Wisconsin for his conservation ethic, ingrained in him from his father’s work on the farm before him. Herricks was honored as the Sand County Foundation Aldo Leopold Award winner in 2014 for his longtime conservation efforts.
Bob Micheel, Monroe County Land Conservation Department director, describes Herricks as having a “truly contagious passion for agriculture and our natural resources.” Micheel wrote in his letter of recommendation: “Nothing sells conservation more than people who practice what they preach, and that is why I recommend Jack and Pat Herricks for the Master Agriculturist award.”
Farming with a conservation ethic has been part of his heritage since he was a young boy on the farm, Herricks says. His father planted his crops on the contour and was building waterways for years before his death.
“He was very diligent on how he did everything — that’s the way I grew up,” Herricks says.
Herricks describes a “watershed moment” in his farming career, when he was chasing his neighbor’s beef cattle through his newly planted fields and saw ditches carrying the soil away from his cropland. The year was 1984.
“I thought, I have a lot of years left to farm here. I’m just not going to tolerate that [erosion],” he says. “I had heard and read about no-till, and I thought, next year we’re making the switch.”
No-till farming “wasn’t a bed of roses” when he first started, but every year he refined his practices and things got better. No-till has helped his farm be more productive and keep the soil where it belongs, he says. Cover crops have recently been added to the farming operation as another way to keep the soil in place.
Herricks’ belief has always been that he doesn’t have to watch or worry about what his neighbors or others are doing on their farms.
“We just need to pay attention to what’s working on our farm — that’s what we want to do more of,” he says.
Herricks met his wife, Pat, when she came to the farm with an FFA group to judge dairy cows the same year he started farming. “I thought, if she wants to get out and judge dairy cows, maybe she wants to come out and be a farm wife,” he says with a smile. They have been married for 48 years, with three children and seven grandchildren.
Herricks started his farming career with a herd of 34 cows and expanded slowly over time by adding heifers from his herd. The farm made a “quantum leap” from 80 to 280 cows when Herricks came to the realization that if he was going to keep farming, he needed full-time help.
The herd has since grown to 620 cows, with crops grown on 1,120 owned and 480 rented acres. The farm has 12 full-time and four part-time employees.
The farm has been implementing a crossbreeding program since 2000, and now has a genetic base of about 40% Holstein, 40% Jersey and 20% Brown Swiss.
“We produce milk for a manufacturing market, and the manufacturing market likes high-component milk,” he says. “Instead of talking about milk per cow, we talk about how many pounds of solids our cows produce. Our crossbreeding program is a reflection of that.”
Two of the three Herricks children are involved in the farming operation, with Angela filling the role of herdsperson and Daniel working as dairy herd manager. Daniel’s wife, Michelle, is the lead person at the calf barn. Angela’s husband, Donald, works in maintenance and cropping.
The Herrickses’ third child, Nathan, is a financial adviser in South Carolina.
Many people bemoan the demise of the 50-cow dairy farm, but Herricks says it was his farm’s growth that made it possible for his family to farm together.
“Would Angie and Daniel be farming with us today if they had to milk cows twice a day, week after week, month after month, like I did when I started?” he asks. The farm now has enough employees to work eight-hour shifts and milk three times a day.
Herricks says the biggest change he made in his farming career was switching from managing cows to figuring out how to manage people.
“My motto is very simple: the golden rule. Treat people like you would want to be treated yourself,” he says.
Sharing equipment, labor
The Herricks family has been farming cooperatively with the neighboring Brueggen family for nearly 40 years, sharing equipment and labor when it comes time to plant and harvest.
“There is no formal agreement of any sort,” Herricks explains. “Nothing is owned together. Each family owns a truck or a chopper or whatever. When we’re chopping, they bring their trucks, a tractor and their labor. When we go to their farm, we take our equipment and labor. We keep track of the hours the people and equipment work at each farm, and at the end of the year, we settle up on it.
“Working with the Brueggen family, we have one simple rule — if we are going to do something and it is not good for both families, then we need to rethink it.”
Herricks had a near-death experience in 2005 that gave him a new outlook on life. A bad case of Lyme disease destroyed the electroconductivity of his heart and left him a heartbeat away from death.
“That experience has developed in me a desire to be a servant-leader,” Herricks says. “I figured God must have more things for me to do before he wants to take me.”
Since that illness, he has taken on leadership roles in local government and Farm Bureau, begun donating blood platelets, and made numerous mission trips to Guatemala and Mexico.
Herricks says he never set out to win awards or receive recognition of any kind with his actions on the farm.
“We’re kind of the poster child for the American dream,” Herricks says of his farming story. “When I came home to take over the farm at 19, I had about $10 and a small suitcase of clothes. But I had a really strong determination that I was going to somehow make this work.
“I do what I do because my true calling is to produce food for God’s people. Our success is because God has blessed us with the skill set to overcome adversity and build on our strengths. To me, the awards are more of a recognition of the joy we receive from having a long and successful career.”
Massey writes from Barneveld, Wis.