Farming for a century

Kerwin Cordes displays a Century Farm certificate earned by him and his wife, Marilyn, at the 2019 Wisconsin State Fair. Marilyn declined to be in the photo.                                        Photo by Bob Zientara

By Bob Zientara

“My grandfather had been on this property 44 years when I bought it,” said Kerwin Cordes, of Comstock, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Kerwin and his wife, Marilyn, farm 300 acres at 1767 Fourth St., about four miles northwest of Almena.

“I thought that was a long time,” he added. “And now I’ve been here 55 years.”

The Cordes family was among 145 other farm families who were honored Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, as owners of Wisconsin Century Farms. The event took place at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis.

The celebration continued Sept. 21 on the Cordes farm, as about 50 people gathered for a reunion.

Kerwin said his ancestors arrived from Europe in the early 1880s, settling first in western Minnesota. Later, William relocated to Comstock, purchasing 80 acres of land in September 1919.

Kerwin, who grew up on his parents’ farm just to the north, bought his grandparents’ property in May 1964, four years before he and Marilyn were married. Both the home farm and William’s property have since been incorporated into the family operation.

While they farmed, William and Wilhelmine Cordes maintained a herd of Guernsey cows for many years. William kept meticulous records, Marilyn said.

The records date back nearly a century, to the 1920s. Marilyn has laminated many of the deteriorating paper records to preserve them.

William Cordes’ records tell interesting stories, Marilyn noted.

In 1930, William was part of a cutting-edge movement to eradicate brucellosis in dairy cattle, when he instituted a testing program in his herd.

In 1938, William was one of the original members of the Barron Electric Cooperative. Marilyn preserved a membership certificate signed by Wallace Jerome.

William and Wilhelmine devoted some of their property to the “Food for Victory program during World War II, a farm-based version of the Victory Garden movement.

William passed away in 1963, and his grandson carried on the family ownership.

After they took possession of the property, Kerwin and Marilyn Cordes were also dairy farmers for many years, eventually converting the herd from Guernseys to Holsteins.

In the News-Shield’s specialty publication “Countryside,” the Cordes operation was featured in a “Farmer Spotlight” story published in the early 1980s.

By the turn of the 21st century, the Cordes’ decided to disperse their herd, selling off 60 Holstein cows in 2004. One of their sons milked cows at the farm over the next decade before he, too, sold his herd.

“I missed (dairy farming) at first,” said Marilyn, who grew up on a farm near Albert Lea, Minn., “But I’m getting over it. Where I grew up, we raised calves, and I fed the cows and talked to them. We had pigs and chickens, too, but I hated taking care of the chickens.

“But with milk prices what they are, you just can’t compete any longer,” she added. “Machinery is expensive to buy, and it costs a lot to fix, too.”

Their future plans are “in limbo” now, Kerwin said.

“The storm threw a monkey wrench into things,” he added. “Right now, our biggest concern is building a new machine shed.”

The Cordes’ have been promised a new shed by the end of fall, and they’re waiting anxiously.

“At our age, I hate to think of (what would happen if the machinery stayed out for the winter),” Kerwin said. “We’ve got to have the shed before the snow flies.”

The couple now raises corn, alfalfa and green beans, which are sold to the Seneca cannery in Cumberland. Their son, Will, who works for the University of Wisconsin’s Marshfield Experimental Farm, helps his parents with spring planting. Otherwise, Kerwin and Marilyn do most of the remaining farm work.

The Cordes’ are the parents of two other adult children. Son Alan now farms with his father-in-law near Waupaca. Another son, Aaron, is a computer engineer in Bloomington, Minn.

Times and traditions have changed over the last century. And yet, some of the oldest family traditions persist. To this day, Marilyn still harvests raspberries, rhubarb and asparagus from gardens started by Wilhelmine Cordes, nearly a century ago.

Started in 1948 as part of Wisconsin’s centennial celebration, the Wisconsin Century Farm program has honored more than 9,600 farm families whose property ownership dates back at least 100 years.

Century Farm families were asked to choose a newspaper to which the announcement should be sent. Marilyn and Kerwin chose the News-Shield.