In life, there are dreamers and then there are doers. Brad and Nicole Wren, the 2019 Outstanding Young Dairy Cooperator (OYDC) Runners-Up, fall in the latter category. There’s nothing that stands in the way of them fulfilling everything that’s on their bucket list – including starting a dairy farm.
[X] Start a Dairy Farm
“Starting a dairy farm was something I always wanted to do,” said Brad. “I came from down state, my mom and dad both grew up in the city, so I really don’t know where the idea of being a dairy farmer came from.”
Recognizing that starting a farm with no background or experience in dairy may spell disaster for his dream, Brad took a job at a local dairy farm when he was a teenager. There, he learned how to milk, care for calves and got an inside look into what it really takes to run a dairy farm.
Brad’s intimate view of the dairy lifestyle didn’t prevent him from chasing after his dream. In 2008, only one month after he married Nicole, they started their own dairy from scratch in Prescott, Michigan. The morning they started milking their first five cattle was the first time Nicole touched a cow.
“I remember the first morning we started milking I was like, ‘Okay, this is the rest of my life,’” Nicole reflected. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but we’re going to make it work.”
Fortunately for Nicole, although she had no experience with anything agriculture, her associate degree in entrepreneurship and business management helped prepare her for the life that she never dreamed she would live.
“I always wanted to have my own business,” Nicole said. “I went to school for entrepreneurship and business, so I guess that’s why it wasn’t so hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that I would be milking cows for the rest of my life. Dairy farming is a business after all.”
Nicole jumped headfirst into the dairy community with ease. To get more knowledge and experience as their farm was just beginning, Nicole started working for NorthStar Cooperative as a DHI tech. In the role, she would visit farms and sample the milk and also, occasionally, bring home cows.
“I get a phone call from this farmer down the road saying, ‘Come get your cow,” Brad shared. “I asked him, ‘What cow?’ and he said, ‘Your wife bought you a cow, come get her.’”
Again, this just-do-it attitude, along with help from their neighbors, is how Brad and Nicole were able to successfully grow their first-generation farm from five cows to the nearly 90 head that they have today.
“We’ve had a lot of help from the community,” Nicole said. “Because our families didn’t grow up in agriculture, any questions we’ve had, we had to reach out to them or they allowed us to buy their cows to help us get our start.”
Just as the community has helped them find their foot in the dairy industry, they give back too with Nicole busy volunteering and Brad serving as a volunteer firefighter in their community.
[X] Become a Firefighter
In 2016, Brad decided that he wanted to become a firefighter. It worked with his dairy farming schedule and it would provide extra income to make it through the rough tide of milk prices. While that’s the logical reasoning behind the decision, it stemmed from something else much more spontaneous.
“Brad and I were watching American Sniper one night and he always wanted to be in the military, but it didn’t happen when he was younger and I didn’t want him that far from home,” said Nicole. “While watching the movie, he realized he could be a firefighter. Really, it’s all because of Kyle from American Sniper that Brad became a firefighter!”
While Brad admits that that’s a bit of an exaggeration, he did thoroughly enjoy taking his firefighter training courses, and eventually went on to also take courses qualifying him as an EMT. The intensive schooling has kept him busy for the past three years and has once again, checked something off the bucket list.
While Brad began his side hustle of being a volunteer firefighter, Nicole put her entrepreneurial spirit to work sharing her and Brad’s dairy story with consumers.
[X] Build Digital Connections
Brad and Nicole recognize that the greatest challenge facing the dairy industry is how fast anti-dairy trends can form and spread on social media. To help their farm and others in the nation’s dairy industry compete with this challenge, Nicole started a blog in 2016 that aims to educate and relate with consumers.
Nicole uses her perspective as a mom of three children under the age of nine, Kenna, Avery and Everett, to connect with other moms confused about what to feed their families.
“I try to make sure I interact with consumers regularly,” Nicole said. “With my blog and my Instagram account, I make sure that if people do have questions related to dairy, they at least know somebody that they can connect with.”
As an MMPA Dairy Communicator, Nicole also uses her knowledge and experience both as a dairy farmer and as a mom to meet with consumers in person at events held within their county. Nicole can be found chairing booths focused on dairy at numerous occasions throughout the year.
Never satisfied though with keeping still, Nicole marked another dream off her bucket list by opening a shirt shop with her sisters. All the shirts are designed to create positive conversation about the quality and safety of dairy and other agriculture products. The shop targets women involved in the agriculture industry with the goal of focusing on dairy and bringing people together.
“Last year, we teamed up with some Instagram dairy farmers from across the U.S – everywhere from California to Pennsylvania. They called themselves the Dairy Mafia and on social media, they were open about their mental health and what they do all the time,” Nicole said. “We sold over 800 shirts for them and $4 from every shirt purchased was given to giveagallon.com.”
While the shirt shop is the most recent entrepreneurial adventure Brad and Nicole have taken on, their recently earned title of 2019 OYDC Runners-Up provides another avenue to put their just-do-it attitude to work – this time representing their fellow cooperators.
[X] Serve as OYDC Runners-Up
Brad and Nicole attended the OYDC conference in August at MMPA’s headquarters in Novi, Michigan. There, they met fellow OYDC finalists and learned about the inner workings of the cooperative first-hand from MMPA’s leaders.
“Going to Novi, being in the lab and seeing how everything is processed, really helped open our eyes,” Nicole said. “I learned about how the co-op is structured, who all is involved and what all the working parts are.”
After completing an interview, giving a speech and conducting a farm tour for the judges, the Wrens were selected as OYDC Runners-Up. In this role, Brad and Nicole will represent MMPA at national dairy meetings, serve an honorary term on the MMPA Advisory Committee and influence the MMPA Young Cooperator program. They will be representing MMPA alongside James Weber, the 2019 OYDC.
[ ] Future Goals
What else does the future hold for the Wrens? Nothing is out of the question.
“I think we want to find a way to diversify a little bit and not just be dairy,” Nicole said. “Brad would like to do more crops; however, for me it’s more agritourism. I don’t know if I want the next generation to take over unless I can make our farm something stronger than what it is now. Whether that’s adding Highland cattle … sheep … I don’t know.”
Brad isn’t convinced about starting a sheep farm, but Nicole claims that “the lady on Instagram makes it look easy.” Regardless of what venture the Wrens take next, they will remain dairy farmers at heart, carrying on the just-do-it attitude and sharing with consumers the great things about dairy. After all, as Nicole pointed out, “We’re still so young, we have our whole lives ahead of us.”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of the Milk Messenger. Subscribe »