Boyhood dream on hold for Milk Pitcher Award winner
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Being a dairy farmer was Tom Peterson’s dream since he was 2 years old. For a time, he lived that dream.
Although he recently moved into Sauk Centre from a farm near Padua and sold many of his Jersey cows, he is waiting in hope to resume his dairy farming life.
For his advocacy of the dairy industry, he was awarded the Stearns County American Dairy Association’s Milk Pitcher Award in January.
Peterson grew up in Chaska, a southwest suburb of Minneapolis, but he was not without farming role models and experiences.
“Both sets of grandparents dairy farmed, as well as four uncles,” Peterson said. “Whenever we visited family I always brought barn clothes along.”
Peterson worked for local dairy farms during high school. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in May 2001, with a degree in animal science.
“All I ever wanted to be was a dairy farmer,” he said.
Fresh out of college, Peterson took a job working in dairy nutrition for Cargill in Janesville, Wis. Soon after, he transferred to Alexandria to start a new Cargill territory doing feed sales and dairy consulting.
After moving to a farm near Padua in about 2003, a door opened for Peterson to work at a friend’s dairy. But what he really wanted was to start his own dairy farm.
In 2007, he rented a farm facility west of Sauk Centre. “I bought all my own cows and bought the feed,” he said.
Once his milking operation was up and running, Peterson turned his attention to advocating for the dairy industry.
In 2008, he was instrumental in reviving Breakfast on the Farm, an annual event which had been held in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“The idea is all I can take credit for,” said Peterson. “It was the committee’s and everyone else’s vision that brought it all together. We made a couple phone calls and held an informational meeting.”
Another of Peterson’s contributions to the dairy industry in Stearns County is the Dairy Day Show each June.
“I was never in 4-H, but I’ve seen what it has done for friends of mine,” he said. “It’s so important to have these shows and give kids the opportunity to
exhibit their animals.”
Unfortunately, feed prices tripled in the five years after Peterson started milking. “I couldn’t afford to keep buying feed,” he said.
Peterson began looking for a farm to buy in about 2011. “There are very few for sale, and I couldn’t find one I could buy,” he said. “Many of the buildings are just worn out and need updating.”
After he was advised by his banker and his farm business management adviser to sell, he made a very tough decision.
“In October, I decided to quit milking,” he said. “It was really discouraging. I was in the top 15 percent for profitability of farms the adviser works with. The dairy and the cows were clicking very well.”
All of Peterson’s cows were registered Jerseys, most originally purchased in Wisconsin. “I still own 50 heifers, which are being raised for me near Sauk Centre,” said Peterson.
Peterson is currently working part time for Select Sires, breeding cows. He also does relief milking for local farmers.
“I’ve had several job offers,” he said, “but I would really like to jump back into milking. I’m hoping an opportunity will present itself.”
Peterson recently heard about a Department of Agriculture program which pairs retiring farmers with those who want to become established in farming. He hopes that will provide an opportunity.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have extremely supportive family and friends,” he said. “I love the dairy business, and I love living in Central Minnesota, with the great infrastructure here for dairying.”
“Things generally work out — when you least expect it,” Peterson said. “I’ve been surprised many times by things I didn’t think would happen.”