A Dairy Farm Summer Camp: Fun for All Ages
Dairy farms are a hustling and bustling place. Cows are being milked, calves are being fed, and farm kids are often running around. This certainly is the picture of Berning Acres, located halfway between East Dubuque and Galena, Illinois. Located in the small town of Menominee, Matt and Natalie Berning, along with their five children, all play a role in their family farm that consists of 400 milk cows and 850 acres.
Berning Acres got its start by Matt’s parents, John and Ellen, who began milking 30 cows in the early 70s. John, a second-generation dairy farmer, grew up on his parent’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, and Ellen grew up as a daughter to an entrepreneur father and mother who owned a cheese factory, and several taverns. John and Ellen and their seven children worked together, side-by-side, milking cows and working in the fields.
It was no surprise that Matt fell in love with the cows. This was a life that he naturally stepped into. Before returning to the family farm, he graduated from Southwest Technical College with two degrees. One in dairy herd management and the other in agribusiness science and technology. Matt is thankful his parents encouraged new ideas to continue to grow and expand their dairy operation.
“Dairy farming was something I’ve always enjoyed,” Matt says. “I saw an opportunity to return home and modernize our farm to make it viable for future generations. I feel fortunate that my parent’s recognized my passion and encouraged me to pursue my desire.”
Matt and Natalie married in 2007. Natalie, who was not raised on a farm, stopped teaching school and redirected her energy and her time after their fourth child was born. Wanting her children to learn the lessons of responsibility and hard work, Natalie also knew it would be hard to give her children the tasks of milking cows and feeding calves when the farm already had six full-time employees.
Between cows, pigs, goats, ducks, sheep, chickens, and horses, the Berning children began learning responsibility and commitment by taking care of their ‘farm friends.’
“Matt and I want the kids to be outside and interactive on the farm. Adding the additional farm friends has allowed the kids to take ownership of the animals by having to do daily chores like feeding them and making sure their areas are cleaned and well maintained,” Natalie says. “They love showing off their animals to the campers, and any cousins or friends that are out at the farm.”
Fun For All Ages
According to Natalie, the natural next step for the family was to open the farm's barn doors by launching a Farm Camp.
“We literally always had people on the farm who seemed excited about what was going on,” she says.
Farm Camp began two years ago and allows campers to start with a few morning chores, like feeding the animals and collecting the eggs from the chicken coop.
“We also have organized activities each day,” Natalie says. “Like making ice cream or butter from scratch, outdoor games, scavenger hunts and more.”
Blown away by the interest, the Berning's sold out the first year with 60 campers.
“We kept our number pretty low the first year,” Natalie says.
The feedback from camp-goers was overwhelmingly positive, with double the participants this summer, as the Bernings hosted another round of Farm Camp. The kids truly loved it, but also so did the adults. So much in fact, that a new idea was birthed to introduce an adult version of camp, Night at the Farm, where wine and charcuterie and beer and cheese curds led to deeper conversations about dairy.
“They basically get all the experience – feed a calf, milk a cow, help with farm chores and really see what a dairy looks like in the 21st century,” Natalie explains. “It’s fun and an enjoyable experience for all.”
With the help of their calf manager, Berning Farm also offers individual farm tours.
“Our calf manager is amazing and genuinely enjoys leading these tours,” she says. “On the tour, they get the same hands-on-learning experience.”
Able to see things differently, not growing up on a farm, Natalie says she takes it all in and calls raising a family on a dairy farm a true blessing.
“We hope that visitors will leave with some great knowledge about agriculture, farm animals, and farm life and really a deeper appreciation for that wholesome nutritious glass of milk,” she says.
The Bernings share that their on-the-farm tours is now scaled to their comfort level and plan to continue offering all three tours - Farm Camp, Night at the Farm and farm tours to the public.
“Our children are still having fun with it,” Natalie says. “All our kids are the age of the campers, so they’re having a blast, and all have their role in helping out.”