All in the family

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After 100+ years, Tyczkowski name still means ‘farming’

Charles Collier, NEW Media-Wisconsin Correspondent

The Tyczkowskis produced milk for White Clover in Hollandtown until 1994 before raising heifers. Today, beef cattle rule the barn. From left: Melissa, Reece, and Joseph Tyczkowski. (Photo by Charles Collier)

About five miles northwest of Pulaski, nestled in the flatlands of 100-acre fields and roads which are not-quite paved yet not-quite dirt is a piece of Wisconsin’s agrarian history.

Though the farm of Joseph and Melissa Tyczkowski just this year earned its designation as a Century Farm — one which has been in continuous family ownership for 100 years — it is neither the first in the area, much less the first in the bloodline.

“Grandpa bought this land in 1918,” said Joseph, who is named after his grandfather. “His father had a farm just up the way, and he was expanding the family farm off of that.”

The elder farm was founded in the mid-1880s by Polish homesteaders who carried the traditions and language of the old country with them. Generations of Tyczkowskis walked from their respective farms — as many as four different neighboring plots at one time — to the Hofa Park schoolhouse, where lessons were taught in Polish.

“When dad would get together with all my uncles who lived around here, they’d only be speaking in Polish,” said Joseph, smiling.

A more industrialized and globalized society helped alleviate the Polish tongue of its usefulness in these parts, but Joseph has not forgotten the important things: He knows some basic greetings, “and the swear words,” he laughed.

More than some cheeky linguistics, the Tyczkowski forbears instilled the do-or-die work ethic that growing up on a farm naturally brings. In the old days, a series of fenced pastures ran between three family homes where the herd of about 40 milking cows freely grazed.

Two of the homes and structures have been torn down for decades, though pieces of concrete from the foundations are still tilled up in spring when the Tyczkowskis are readying the roughly 180 acres for corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and oats.

“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Joseph in a more subdued tone.

He doesn’t say this like a stereotypical “old man” waving his fist at the sky — farming has undeniably changed in drastic ways.

Whether it be new combines whose technology requires more than a mechanics’ know-how to repair or the ground-level prices for farm commodities, the idea of a family-run farm has become more and more infeasible.

“We’re the only one left with animals,” said Joseph while telling a brief history of Willow Road, where he has lived for most of his life. “There used to be six farms just on this road, and everyone was milking.”

Joseph and Melissa, his wife, decided to sell their some 60 milking cows in 1994 and transformed the farm facilities into a heifer raising operation, which they kept going until 2012. Today, there are about 65 beef cattle of all ages which roam between the barn and the fenced pasture.

In addition to the hay and grain used for feed, the family cash crops soybeans and corn, as well as a small amount of oats and wheat. That practice does not pay all the bills, however, leading Joseph to work as an insurance agent and a local-route truck driver.

“I told him that we’re going to die here; I don’t want to go anywhere else for the rest of my life,” said Melissa, who originally hails from suburban Green Bay.

When she first left the city for the fields about 25 years ago after her marriage, Melissa did not quite know what to expect. It was a different way of life, for sure, and not one that can fit everybody.

“At first, I was a little intimidated. It’s a lot of work, and it never ends — there is always something that needs to get done,” she said, “I never milked; I was too intimidated by the cows to do that, so I was always the feeder.”

The couple’s twin daughters, both 21, had the same general reservations about the farming lifestyle as they grew up; mostly sticking to the front-end of the stansions and finding the most connection with the barn cats.

Reece, who turns 23 this month, had a different experience growing up on the Willow Road fields.

“I really like being my own boss and not having to work for anyone else,” said Reece, who studied horticulture at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College after graduating from Pulaski High School in 2013. Much like his father, who spent his early adulthood living in the city for trucking work, Reece was not attracted to making city life his permanent situation.

“Cows are easier to work with than people are,” he said only half-joking after a short search for words.

Reece is set to take over the Tyczkowski farmstead, but his plan is still uncertain as the former bedrocks of American agriculture slide away from economic realities. Expanding the beef herd will require renovations to one of the barns or building a new one, much of the machinery first came off the assembly line before 1970, and the crops and animals which have traditionally been profitable are anything but.

Just as the late 19th century immigrants did, however, the Tyczkowski lineage is not afraid to innovate.

“I started a pumpkin patch behind the house a few years ago,” said Reece, who has also built a small greenhouse next to the home,” and starting selling them on the side of the road.”

What began as an off-the-cuff hobby project turned into an annual moneymaker. Last October, more than 700 pumpkins grown off two acres were sold from the property. One customer was so pleased that there is now a standing order for 50-plus pumpkins every season.

“I like to tinker with things,” said Reece, “this last season I invested a little bit and set up an irrigation system for the pumpkins,” which found its usefulness during the near-drought month of August last year.

Joseph and Melissa each had a sardonic tip for their son’s venture into agriculture: “Get out of it now.”

Of course, there is an abundance of pride that the same blood which cleared the trees from the loamy soil more than 100 years ago will be tilling it into the foreseeable future, and the Century Farm award was not accepted casually.

“This is where I’ve always been, and what I’ve always known,” said Joseph, whose father, 90, travels from Pulaski daily for some kind of farm work or another. “It’s just in our blood, I guess.”