By Jennie Zeitler
With the exception of six months’ active duty with the National Guard, Mike Middendorf of Sauk Centre has farmed his entire life.
He grew up on a dairy farm three miles northeast of town and brought his wife, LaVonne, home there when they married in 1970. They raised six children, all of them still in Minnesota.
Middendorf sold the homesite of the old farm in 2005, when he and his wife moved to a home owned by their daughter, near the farm.
“We kept the farmland, about 300 aces,” he said.
Middendorf hcompleted the transition to organic production in 2000. He was encouraged by his daughter Kim to go organic to increase his cash flow.
“With organic milk, I had a more stable market — it didn’t fluctuate so much,” said Middendorf. “You have to make a living and feed your family.”
The majority of organic dairy farmers cross-breed their cows for hybrid vigor, he said. His dairy cows were Jersey, Ayrshire and Swedish Red crosses.
During the dairying years, Middendorf dabbled with various beef cattle.
“I had some Gelbvieh cattle, a breed that originated in Germany,” he said. “They have a good disposition.”
He later acquired a British White bull and some calves. “They interested me — they were unusual,” he said. “They are another breed with a good disposition.”
He had his eye on selling breeding stock, but at one point didn’t have enough feed for both dairy cows and beef cattle. The British White were sold so he could concentrate on his dairy operation. Then, the dairy springer market went bad, and he turned back to beef.
“When I decided to go back to beef, I wanted British Whites again,” he said. “I believe their meat is more tender than other breeds.”
In 2012, Middendorf added Tugboat, an 8-year-old bull, to his herd of British Whites. Tugboat has such a gentle temperament, Middendorf had no trouble helping him pose for a photo.
Eight steers will be ready for slaughter in 2013, with 12 being prepared for 2014.
This year will be Middendorf’s “maiden voyage” selling his beef at the St. Joseph Farmer’s Market. If the Avon market gets off the ground this year, he will be there as well.
His granddaughters, 12-year-old Madi, 11-year-old Brielle and 10-year-old Molly, have taken an interest in some aspects of the farming operation. They named a set of twin calves born this year.
Cinnamon has remained with her mother, but Precious was taken by Middendorf and bottle-fed.
“She was so little that she spent her first two weeks in the heated shop,” he said.
Middendorf’s bull mastiff, Lucy, adopted the calf, cleaning her and sleeping with her. Now, Precious runs right over when she is called.
Middendorf grows hay, corn, small grains and red clover. Most of that goes to feed the cattle, although the second cutting of red clover is left until fall, when it is combined for seed.
Cattle are not the only producing interest on the farm this year. For the first time, Middendorf tapped 60 of his maple trees and ended up with 40 gallons of maple syrup.
“I’ve always thought about doing it; it was on my bucket list,” he said. “This year, it only took 30 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. It was a really good year.”
To get started, he bought used taps and pails and built his own evaporator. He anticipates having to build a bigger evaporator next year, and will be acquiring a reverse osmosis machine.
His granddaughters were the enthusiastic recipients of the first maple syrup.
“I had cooked some down, and we had pancakes on Saturday and French toast on Sunday,” said Middendorf. “They thought it was so good.”
None of Middendorf’s children farm, but he has a hunch that when he is ready to retire, his son will step in. But that won’t be for a while yet.
“I’m still learning,” Middendorf said. “We’re never done learning.”