I had so much to learn about cows and farming–but how I loved it and still do to this day!

Looking for a summer job

It was a super windy early spring day just like this one, 39 years ago in 1981 when I first came to this prairie farm, driving down from Wisconsin during spring break in my little VW Beetle, so lightweight that it was hard to keep on the road in the gusty winds. I was interviewing for a summer job, encouraged by a classmate in my Ag Engineering department, who agreed that some farm work experience would be valuable.

First impressions

As I drove in the driveway, I saw some fuzzy red calves, which I soon found out were the Meriville Milking Shorthorns Kenneth’s family had been breeding for 45 years already then. Kenneth came out to greet me with the biggest smile I had ever seen on anyone’s face. He brought me in to meet his mother, Rosa, a tall and capable woman, who I found was his right hand “man” on the farm. After a tour of the buildings and animals, and some of Rosa’s homemade mincemeat cookies, I headed back home to make my decision, certain that these were a couple of the most fascinating people I had ever met.

Yes, I accepted the job, and while I was finishing the semester at UW Madison, Rosa wrote me a few chatty letters about the pastures greening up and other farm news.

So much to learn

I loved farm life right away, sore muscles, cow manure, hay dust, and all.  I had grown up in Monroe, Wisconsin, surrounded by dairy country that we would ride our bikes through, but not really knowledgeable at all, in fact I was full of stupid questions. Kenneth enjoyed patiently teaching me everything: how to identify all the pasture plants, how to milk and feed calves and build fence, and about pedigrees and breeding.  Soon I knew the sires and cow families of all the cows, and learned what traits were most desirable in a practical dairy cow.  

At that time, in 1981, he was just freshening his first daughters of homebred sire Meriville Sumthun Else, whose native dam was linebred Robin’s Red Signet, and I remember he was especially excited by that beautiful bunch of heifers with uniformly great udders and plenty of milk.

(He always did like to think of clever names like that for his herd sires. He figured this way when someone asked what bull he was using, and since he didn’t tend to go with the trendy sires, he could say “Sumthun Else”.  Sumthun Else then sired Meriville Skookumchuck, who sired Meriville Peerless, who figures heavily in all our pedigrees now.)

Me with Meriville Kitty Beauty, dam of Meriville Skookumchuck.

Kenneth was just getting started in Dutch Belted breeding at the time, with a few heifer calves from the O’Neill herd as they became available. I remember his enthusiasm for the challenge of working with this rare breed, and his profound respect for Dorothy O’Neill Hornback and her steadfastness in keeping her family’s dairy herd going as long as she could.

Embarking on a lifetime

I returned to Madison in the fall to finish my last two years of college, forever changed, though it took me awhile to realize and come to grips with just how much the trajectory of my life was to change. In 1983 I drove my Beetle back to the farm with all my worldly possessions, to join the Hoffman family farm for good by marrying Kenneth, the supremely fascinating, complicated yet simple, stubborn and steadfast, pure-hearted man I was blessed to share the next 22 years with.

Kenneth and Winifred, the engaged couple, 1983.

I got a farm job, all right, and a family and a farm and the fulfilling task of stewarding these heritage breeds for the sake of genetic diversity for future generations.