Drive down most country roads in Wisconsin and eventually you’ll smell it… that ‘not always pleasant, but oh so familiar’ dairy farm smell. It’s a part of life Wisconsinites are used to, and for the most part, aren’t too bothered by.
What happens when it’s not a passing thing? When the scent, that for most of us fades as we travel down the road, gets stronger and stronger the closer you get to home? What happens when, even though you do not live on a farm, it smells like you do?
You can get together with your neighbors, complain to your town board. After all, there has to be something that the farmer can do! Does he have the right to make such a stink? You can’t even figure out why it smells so bad, and then you hear he’s adding more cows?? Does he even care that it’s upsetting the neighborhood??
If that farmer is Russel Strutz of Strutz Farms, Inc. he does care. And he’ll prove it to you.
Russel doesn’t know any other way of life other than being a farmer. He’s the only one of five children who stayed on his parents’ farm into adulthood. As his four siblings went off to do other things, Russel found he was more interested in cows than people and realized that farming was in fact, the life for him.
It wasn’t long after Russel and his wife Karen started their own family that he had ideas for the family farm that went beyond the hundred or so cows that his parents managed. It was in 1995 that Russel’s parents gave him the green light to begin expanding and it was in 1996 that the complaints from neighbors started. They didn’t like the way it smelled. They didn’t understand why it smelled the way it did, why the smell was getting stronger, or why Russel was expanding without any permission. They took their complaints straight to the Two Creeks town board.
Subsequently, the town board brought the complaints to Russel. “Why does it smell so bad?” they asked. “What can you do to fix it?” They were under a lot of pressure from the residents. It was a delicate situation for sure. The neighbors felt that Russel had no right to expand without their approval when in reality – he had done everything he needed to do legally to increase his herd according to the county laws. He understood the smell was from the lagoon – and personally believed that part of the increased odor was because it was new and hadn’t yet begun to benefit from the natural process that occurs over time as solids begin to break down. He felt that with a little time, the smell would decrease naturally and things would be better.
Russel was unhappy about the pressure that was being placed on the members of the town board. As a long time volunteer for the Two Creeks Fire Department, many of the town board members were Russel’s friends and fellow firefighters. He wanted to take steps to reduce the odor, not only to appease the neighbors but also to ease the burden on the board. He began using additives to aid in the breakdown of manure in the lagoon, and therefore reduce the odor. While the additives did help, it didn’t stop the townspeople from proposing the passage of a law that would limit any further farm expansion.
Fortunately, the town board did not act on the idea of limiting farm expansion when it was brought up in 1996, so in 1999 Russel Strutz was able to once again increase the size of his farm – this time bringing his herd up over 500 cows. As expected, the phone calls started immediately. Cries of “He has no right!” were mingled in amongst concerns of what his large operation “might be” doing to the environment.
In 2007, his neighbors failed to realize was that his latest expansion over 1,000 cows – the one that put him up over 1,000 animal units – essentially put his farm under a microscope as well as all kinds of extra scrutiny. There was now a permit that he was required to maintain: WPDES – Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System – which was no small feat in itself. Whereas a farm down the road might decide to make a change to their lagoon or the way they store feed and only have to contend with their county officials, Strutz Farms, Inc. now had to hire engineers to design their systems and pass inspection at the state and county levels, in addition to receiving the approval of the Department of Natural Resources at every turn.
From 1999 to 2007 – Strutz Farms did not expand; they simply maintained the status quo. That kept the complaints down, but neighbors weren’t exactly happy. Everyone just kind of co-existed, but Russel and Karen and their four kids often felt the tension when out and about.
In the summer of 2007, in an effort to reduce the burden placed upon the town board, Russel organized a neighborhood meeting. He wanted to be proactive about his upcoming expansion plans by offering neighbors within a mile radius of his farm the chance to see what he planned and discuss their concerns ahead of time. About forty of his neighbors were in attendance and took advantage of the fact that Russel had a panel made up of himself, a representative from the county, the engineer who Russel worked with on farm expansions and two of his farm managers. The meeting went well, and while there were still a few neighbors who refused to be open minded about Strutz Farms, Inc. – that gathering did put an immediate stop to any complaints to the town board. Instead, when neighbors had an issue to discuss, they began calling the farm direct.
Then, by happy accident, Russel’s friend Mike – who had volunteered to hook up Wi-Fi in the office of Strutz Farms – was at the farm on his own. With Russel’s blessing Mike hooked up the Wi-Fi, and then unbeknownst to Russel, Mike also satisfied his curiosity about what actually goes on at the farm by taking a look around. Afterwards, he told Russel “I didn’t know you did that!”
That one statement gave Russel Strutz an idea.
Maybe that was part of the problem, he thought. Maybe if his neighbors knew more about what actually went on at the farm they’d be more understanding. So in the summer of 2008, Russel turned his town hall meeting into an open house at the farm.
He stuck with the idea of inviting neighbors who lived within a one mile radius of the farm, and then included those who lived within a ¼ mile from any of their fields – those who are subject to the odor from the farms manure production. He offered brats and burgers and an opportunity to see what actually goes on.
Now in their eighth year of hosting Neighborhood Open Houses, the events have grown to include help from sponsors. Companies like ANIMART who provide the food and beverages for the events, make it possible for Russel’s family to focus on the content of the picnic. They always feature some part of the farm and discuss the process and impact of any planned expansion.
Russel and Karen’s four children – 10 year old Cameron, 15 year old Ryan, 17 year old Meghan and recent college graduate, now full time farm employee, 20 year old Nicole each have a role on the farm that seems to fit them perfectly. Russel hopes that they will eventually take the helm, although admittedly handing over the kind of operation that exists at the Strutz property today is a far cry from the process that Russel went through with his own parents. The passion for farming may be inherent in his children, but it may take a bit more education on their part before they’ll be prepared for the intricacies that exist in a farm of their size.
Whatever the future holds for Strutz Farm Inc., Russel plans to continue hosting his annual Neighborhood Open House. Whether working on expansion projects or not – he and his family enjoy proactively educating folks about their dairy operation. For Russel, the reduced tension in the community and the resulting camaraderie smells like success.