Jennifer Brooks
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Bad weather, bad markets and bad luck nearly drove a century-old Minnesota dairy farm out of business last year.

The new year has been kinder to the Hoffman family.

They have a new herd under the new roof of their new dairy barn and a new appreciation for the friends, neighbors and strangers who helped them through.

"You hear so much that's negative in the news," said Corey Hoffman, who runs the North Creek Dairy in Olmsted County with his father, Gary, and brother, John. "This sort of made you realize that people are good. There's not just bad events happening throughout the country."

In Chatfield, Minn., the sun is shining, the ground is thawing and the barn doors are open wide to let the cows enjoy the breeze. A year ago, blizzards were roaring across Minnesota, collapsing barns and battering farms already crushed by trade wars and commodity prices too low to pay the bills.

One out of every 10 dairy farms in Minnesota — more than 300 of them — went out of business last year. North Creek Dairy could have been one more.

After the first section of barn collapsed, killing 13 cows, the Hoffmans scrambled to get the rest of the herd to safety. A neighbor down the road offered a fair price for the herd, sight unseen, and the community rushed in with trailers to help get the cows.

"We had about 40 trucks and trailers that came and moved them out," Hoffman said. "Half the people, we had no idea who they were. They were people who wanted to help out."

As the cows moved into their new home, the 290-foot barn continued to collapse under the snow and ice while the family waited to see whether insurance would cover the cost of replacing the 12-year-old structure.

For the first time since Corey and John Hoffman's great-grandfather established the farm in 1903, there were no cows to milk at North Creek Dairy.

"We'd never gone a day without milking cows in 116 years, so that was pretty heartbreaking," said Corey Hoffman, who knew every cow by name and had them so well-trained, they responded to voice commands like 1,500-pound puppies.

As word of the family's misfortune spread, they were showered with calls, letters, gift cards and good wishes from around the state. The Hoffmans talked about getting out of the dairy business, but when the insurance check came through, they were ready to rebuild the barn, restock the herd and get back to work. State officials visited and the Legislature approved zero-interest loans to help farmers repair and rebuild after the brutal winter.

By summer, a sturdy new barn was rising, with better ventilation and a roof that should stand up to any weather Minnesota throws at it. By October, they'd found a family getting out of the dairy business and looking for a good home for their herd. That family still visits the cows occasionally, and Hoffman sends them pictures whenever there's a new calf.

"They're almost like pets. You have these animals, you work with them every day," he said.

He's not quite on a first-name basis with the entire new herd, he said, but he's getting there.

"There's a lot of faces to remember," he said with a laugh. "But for the most part, we're getting to know them pretty well. Everything's been going very, very good with them."

Dairy prices even started to improve last year. At least, until the markets took a hit from coronavirus.

"Every previous generation has gone through their struggles," Hoffman said. "This is just ours."

Hoffman's grandfather was only 12 or 13 when his father died and he took over the farm, just as the country was sliding into the Great Depression. One day, he took 12 steers and 20 hogs to market, hoping to use some of the money from the sale to buy a new pair of shoes.

"What little he got [from the sale], he couldn't even afford a pair of shoes," Hoffman said. "That's how bad it was then. He came home and he sat on the front steps and bawled his eyes out. He didn't know what he was going to do."

His grandfather saved the farm for the next generation — and the one after that.

"If he can get through that," Hoffman said. "We should sure be able to get through this."

The Hoffman brothers have small children of their own now. Maybe someday they'll tell them the story of the bad storm and the good neighbors.

"This was, obviously, a horrific event, but there was a lot of good that came out of it," Hoffman said. "Everybody rallied around us to support us. … If the government could get along as good as the ag community, this country would be in a lot better shape."