By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
When Gene Gergen envisioned life as a farmer, there were many things that he could not have anticipated. He owned a 500-acre organic dairy farm in Ellsworth, Wis., and milked more than 100 cows.
Then came various electrical issues which led to the loss of four cattle herds — three in Wisconsin and one after moving to Osakis in November 2003. But ultimately, it was an injury that took him out of dairy farming.
In March 2005, a cow stepped on and smashed Gergen’s right foot, followed by a kick that shattered his left kneecap.
After surgery later that year, he wanted very much to resume farming. He started with 28 heifers in May 2006, adding 30 more cows to fill the barn in fall 2006. But after trying to milk for several months, he realized it wasn’t going to work.
“I just couldn’t be on that foot that much,” Gergen said. “I couldn’t be on cement. An ankle injury, that happened when I was 15, hadn’t been a problem all those years but was also bothering me after the other injuries.”
Gergen and his wife, Cathy, have eight children, six living. “None of them wanted to take over the farm, so at that point I sold off 175 acres and kept 60.”
Gergen’s Wisconsin farm had been certified organic in 1998.
“I never had a market for it earlier,” he said. “The milk went to Horizon, and I continued with them once we got certified in Minnesota in 2006. Most of the milk was delivered locally to Pride of Main Street in Sauk Centre.”
Ironically, that certification came just as he was dealing with the injuries to his foot and knee.
Since he no longer milks, from May through October, Gergen pastures 60 – 80 heifers for organic farmers from New York Mills, Melrose and Eagle Bend.
He also grows hay and sometimes corn silage to feed the heifers.
During the winter, Gergen operates Half Price Storage. He charges 60 cents per foot to house cars, campers, boats and pontoons in his buildings.
“There is 40,000 square feet of storage in my outbuildings,” he said.
Gergen drives to Arizona twice each year to take his mother down in the fall and to bring her back to Minnesota in the spring.
“We go down with the truck and rent a big trailer,” he said. “While we’re down there, we pick anywhere from 350 – 500 boxes of fruit. We get it just for the picking.”
The oranges, grapefruit and lemons that the Gergens collect go to St. John Vianney Church south of Long Prairie; Pope Pius X Seminary in Winona; chapels in Belle Plaine, St. Paul and St. Cloud; and to the nuns in Browerville.
Gergen earned a commercial appraiser’s license and an auctioneer license in the 1990s after losing his first herd. He keeps his auctioneer skills sharp by doing charity auctions.
He also donates time. “I do a church fundraiser auction every year in Phoenix, and some charity auctions in the area and in the Twin Cities,” he said.
Old farm equipment such as plows, planters and grain drills find new purpose in Gergen’s hands. He cuts them down to deer-plot size and sells them.
“I put an ad in the Peach whenever I have some available,” he said.
As another hobby, Gergen buys used cars while in Arizona. “They are rust-free and some are in like-new condition,” he said.
The trucks then go to Gergen’s son, who is a mechanic, to be looked over. “Then I sell them,” said Gergen.
Another hobby is the half-acre garden where the Gergens raise produce.
“The kids get some, and we donate a bunch to people at church and other people who we know need it,” he said.
The farm is bottomland pasture which is very fertile ground, yielding tremendous crops, Gergen said.
Although he hasn’t sold black walnuts yet, several trees on the farm produce good quality nuts. “We haven’t found a good way to shell them,” he said.
Gergen keeps things in perspective. “When I was 19, I figured out my priorities — faith, family and farm,” he said.
He has experienced more than 13 close calls with death, including a shotgun blowing up in his face, an eight-wheel rake dropping on his back, hunting near- misses, a silo gas issue and falling through the barn floor onto cement.
“God gives you what you need, not what you want,” he said. “There is always good to come out of a bad situation, if you wait to see what the Lord has in mind for you.”
To contact Gergen about any of his hobbies and businesses, call (320) 491-6855.