Dairy diva

Barb Liebenstein is feeding the world from Dundas, Minn.

“I love cows!” Barb Liebenstein said. “I love their behavior. I love the challenge of getting them to help me do my job. How can your day be bad when you start by walking past your calves-the future of your business-and see those beautiful faces? That’s when this job gets pretty easy.”

Liebenstein’s job? Running the Wolf Creek Dairy. She is co-owner/operator of the Dundas, Minn., farming business with her husband, Paul. Wolf Creek is one of two independently owned dairy farms left in Bridgewater Township, 40 miles south of the Twin Cities.

“Fifty years ago there were hundreds of dairies in our area and now there are two. I guess we’d better be doing a good job if we want this to last,” she said.

A thing for animals
Working in a family business with a spouse for a partner is something Liebenstein learned about when she was growing up. Her parents were role models for her as they worked together in their greenhouse business near Virginia, Minn. Liebenstein and her sister, Deb, worked with them, helping to grow bedding plants-annuals and perennials-and sod. “[My parents] treated each other with respect,” she said. “And, they taught us also that you need to take time for yourself.

“Deb and I grew up driving tractors,” Liebenstein said, “but I wanted to get as far away from [greenhouse work] as I could.” She had inherited a love of animals, especially horses, from her father. While her sister is now the third generation to own the family greenhouse business, Liebenstein said, “I just wasn’t cut out to work with plants. Living, breathing animals are just more my thing.” She went to the University of Minnesota-Waseca to become a veterinary technician, with the goal of working with large animals.

After completing her degree, Liebenstein worked for five years at a Northfield veterinary clinic. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Paul, a dairy farmer. After they married, in addition to milking cows, she continued on her own career path in the oncology department at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. In the dairy business

In 1994, after her husband needed two back surgeries due to the physical strain of farm work, Liebenstein joined in his dream of a larger-scale, more sustainable dairy business. The farm grew from “40 cows to 300 almost overnight. It was exciting, scary, crazy,” she said. She uses her veterinary technician skills on a daily basis, explaining that farmers don’t just milk cows, they care for them and work hard to keep them healthy.

With six full-time and six part-time employees milking cows in three shifts daily, Liebenstein admits there were days when her own daughters thought the farm came first in their lives. “We all work together, probably more than our daughters would like.” Her daughters, Grace, a first-year student at South Dakota State University, and Mary, a ninth-grader at Northfield High School, have active roles on the farm and each has her own animals to care for. Liebenstein is proud of her daughters’ strong sense of self and not feeling intimidated or out of place in the dairy industry.

Feeding the world
Liebenstein is passionate about taking care of cows and producing quality milk. “As a woman and a mother, I take pride in creating a healthy environment for our cows and our employees,” she said. “Our mission statement is to ‘provide a good quality of life for ourselves, our employees, our cows and the environment.'”

Wolf Creek Dairy is now home to 400 black and white Holsteins that produce 4,000 gallons of milk each day. Some of that milk is made into cheese that is “sold everywhere. We are feeding the world from here,” Liebenstein said.

The average-sized dairy farm in Minnesota is 106 cows. Big farms have 1,500 to 2,000 cows. She considers Wolf Creek Dairy to be a middle-sized farm. According to the Midwest Dairy Association, there are 5,100 dairy farms in Minnesota today. “Even if the horizon is scary for the farming industry,” Liebenstein said, “we will be just fine as long as we stay focused on what is important.”

Getting the message out about farming practices is important to Liebenstein. Whether large scale or small, she is concerned about the perception the public has about farmers.

“We really care and are really passionate about the job that we do,” she said. “We look at it as feeding the world.” She often finds herself in the roles of being an educator and a defender of dairy farming, due to misconceptions from terms such as “factory farms.” “I don’t want to be seen as a villain when we’re applying education and technology to do the best job that we can.”

Liebenstein is concerned about the disconnect people have with where food comes from-and how a farm works. She gives tours to help people understand. “We have tours here all the time,” Liebenstein said, hosting school groups, dairy industry meetings, politicians who have never been on a farm before, even royalty from India. Last June she invited her whole community and had 500 people visit for a “Day on the Farm.” “I never turn anyone down for a tour.”

“My No. 1 priority is taking care of our environment, ” Liebenstein said, “leaving something better for our kids.” As she reflected on her life on a farm, she said, “When I walk out my door and get to see those calves every morning on the way out to my office, it is pretty neat. On a day like today,” she continued, “all is right with the world … [feeling like you’re] doing a really good job, taking care of cows, making sure you’re making a quality product-at the end of the day, it’s so rewarding.”