Two Walworth County centennial farms honored at Walworth County Fair

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Andrea Anderson
Sunday, September 6, 2015

ELKHORN—Black dirt is a good investment, Anne and Joe Rowbotham say.

It certainly has worked out for their family.

The Rowbothams are one of two family farms that will be recognized Monday at the Walworth County Fair for keeping their farmland in the family for 100 years.

The ceremony for the Koehl Farm of Darien and Rowbotham Farms of the town of Walworth will be at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 7, at the fair's Park Stage.

The Koehl family is from France.

In 1910, Fred Koehl came to Wisconsin to work on a family member's farm in Sharon. Years later, he bought the Darien farmland that has been passed from one generation to the next ever since, said Butch Koehl, who co-owns the farm—now 240 acres—with his brother, Mike.

The Rowbothams go back to the town of Linn.

Joseph Rowbotham bought the property in 1914. It was passed on until it eventually landed in the hands of Joe and Anne. The Rowbothams' farm was 80 acres and has grown ever since, Joe said.

Dairy is the Koehl farm's primary focus, though the family grows corn, soybeans and other crops. Over 100 years, the farm has increased its herd from 10 to 15 Holstein cows to 50, not including heifers, which bring the total well past 100.

The Rowbothams ran a dairy farm until Joe retired in 1992. The family then decided to sell their 250 Jersey cows and equipment and rent their land to a farmer, who plants plant corn and soybeans.

Each farm has sold milk to Dean Dairy for a period of time. In 1999, the Koehls switched to Oberweis Dairy in Aurora, Illinois, which produces bottled milk and ice cream. The Rowbothams also sold milk to a cheese cooperative.

The challenges of running a small farm have changed, just as the industry has.

Koehl said a few of the hardships are weather, the price of crops and milk, and trying to meet demand with a three-person staff: Butch, Mike and newcomer Shane, Mike's son.

Keeping up with changes in technology, regulations, herbicides and insecticides and being innovative are some challenges the Rowbothams have faced.

“The economics of a small farm is not quite there,” Joe said, explaining that in 1992 the family debated whether to expand the herd or exit the industry.

“The family farm is not a thing of the past, but it is a dream,” he later added.

While Joe doesn't know how much longer the land will stay in the family, Koehl is optimistic that his nephew Shane, who is taking over the Koehl Farm, will keep it going for years to come.

Regardless of the challenges, it's the industry recognition, family time and work-ethic lessons that make each 4 a.m. wake-up call worth it.

“It's pretty cool,” Butch said of the farm reaching the centennial mark. “Not many people can say that. I guess your hard work pays off when something like this happens. … I almost feel like I'm 100.”

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