A Dairy Farmer's Story: Interview with Carla Wardin, Evergreen Dairy

September 22, 2015

There's no better way for consumers to get informed on how their food is produced than to hear directly from our farmers.

Wardin, 38, and her husband, Kris, are the sole owners of Evergreen Dairy in St. Johns, Michigan. She is the sixth generation to be farming on her family's farm where they milk 400 cows. Carla and Kris also grow crops to feed their cattle on 850 acres of corn, alfalfa and pasture. In 2010, Carla began chronicling her farm life on her blog, Truth or Dairy. She also visits local schools to teach children about farming and enjoys giving on-farm tours. In 2014, she was selected as a Face of Farming and Ranching by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

How did you get into farming? 

I’m the sixth generation on my family’s farm, but we didn’t start out as farmers. After Kris and I graduated from Michigan State University, we worked in marketing in the corporate world and moved around the country for six years. When we lived in Connecticut, my parents were talking about retiring, and we decided to buy the farm.  (Thankfully, Kris is also from a dairy farm.) We had always planned on owning our own business someday, and it seemed like a great business and family life opportunity. We quit our jobs, moved to Michigan, and started farming. Our first summer home, we had twin boys. That season was a huge learning experience! We’ve been farming for eight years now. Our twins (Cole, Ty) are eight, and our youngest son Max is four.    

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

We’ve really concentrated on cow comfort. Two years ago, we built a completely custom barn to raise our calves. Since the cattle are out on pasture and we use bulls to naturally impregnate them, all the calves are born within three months. We needed a barn that was designed specifically for calves to transition from the calf stage – drinking milk – to the older calf stage – eating feed and being in with other calves.  

The barn has numerous features that concentrate on comfort, like curtains for temperature control, fans for the best air circulation, and housing that lets us give them individual attention when they’re young, and social opportunities when they’re older.  

After we built the calf barn, we built a more modern barn for the cows. We put down new mattresses, so they can lie in the stalls with more cushioning. We made their free stalls roomier, so they can make themselves more comfortable. The modern barns allow for better ventilation and lighting, and we also mounted several fans regulated by thermostat to make the environment cooler for the cows – just the way they like it.

Since we’ve built the new barns we’ve seen improved growth for the calves and more milk production for the cows.  

How will farming evolve in the next five years?

It’s already changed so much in the eight years we’ve been farming! Farm practices have become such an important part in the consumer conversation – I’m just as interested as everyone else to see how our business will change and grow.  

What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?

Our greatest challenge has been doubling our herd. With that and the subsequent barns, the feedings, the calves – it really changed our lives by making it a bigger operation. One improvement leads to another. We had to build a manure lagoon to store manure from the barns, and we had to buy a new milk tank for the increased milk production. We had to build the infrastructure to support that – like digging a new well and putting in new water tanks. As a result of our herd growth, we also employ more community members. All of it makes for more interesting days! 

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

We don’t! In the case of milk and dairy products, we always have the standard – milk, and we’re always trying to keep up with the new – like Greek yogurt. Milk demand is cyclical, so we know we’ll have good years and bad years. I just keep encouraging everyone to eat lots of ice cream. That never goes out of style.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

My family has been here – farming this same land – since 1879. We’ve been taking care of this land for generations. We rotate crops so that it’s better for the soil and the plants. We make sure that our manure storage is engineered perfectly. We irrigate our pastures so they produce grass for the cattle. We take care of everything, because if our land isn’t sustainable, we couldn’t farm. Not only is it our livelihood, but it’s also our responsibility.  

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

We are members of Michigan Milk Producers Association, which is our member-owned milk marketing cooperative. Our milk is shipped to the plant just 15 miles from here!  

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

I get lots of questions. I really love putting myself into situations where I can talk to consumers about dairy farming because I enjoy answering questions. So few people have been to a farm – or even know a farmer – that when I tell people I’m a farmer, it generates great conversations. I’m so happy I’m able to represent farmers at a national level as a Face of Farming and Ranching. In Michigan, I love going into the schools, giving tours, and showing what daily life on the farm is like on my blog. I also love telling little kids I’m a farmer because they expect to see an old man in overalls like in the storybooks… not me.