The Tom and Mary Portner family of Sleepy Eye has been named Brown County’s 2017 Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota.

The Tom and Mary Portner family of Sleepy Eye has been named Brown County’s 2017 Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota.

Tom and Mary operate Port-Haven Dairy, just west of Sleepy Eye, with Tom’s brother Mark. The dairy farm was established in 1945, by their dad, Harold, who was an active Brown Swiss breeder. Harold set an example for his children, giving his time and talents to the Minnesota and National Brown Swiss Breeders Associations. In the summer of 1990, a barn fire destroyed the dairy barn and half of the family’s herd. That fall, Harold rebuilt the barn.

In 1992, Tom bought the cows from his father and he and Mary were married. Tom and Mary, along with Tom’s brother, Mark, began rebuilding the herd. Today, the family milks 270 cows and raises their own replacements. Tom and Mary manage the dairy; Mark is in charge of crop production—but helps with milking, too.

Tom and Mary have five daughters: Boston, Sabrina, Isabella, Crystal and Sophia.

“When you use the phrase 'farm family,' it encompasses a great circle,” said Mary. “Tom and I have worked for the last 25 years, building and nurturing our family of five girls to have an appreciation of agriculture and the people who put food on our table. Also, over the last 23 years, we have worked side by side with Tom's brother Mark—family. The two brothers have farmed together, each using their unique talents and skills to make the farm grow and be successful.”

Tom and Mary’s family has been very active in 4-H over the years. The whole family has taken part in dairy cattle showing and judging, as well as the Dairy Project Bowl. Their girls have been involved in FFA at the chapter, regional and state levels—winning many awards. Mark and wife Lisa’s four young children have some great cousins to look up to and will likely be the next crew of Portner kids winning awards.

The Portner girls are active participants in the life of the farm and even have the opportunity to start their own herds.

Tom and Mary’s oldest daughter, Boston, is “all grown up” and no longer living on the farm. She is employed as an Art Therapist with Greater MN Family Health Services. This fall, Sabrina will be in her third and final year at Iowa State University, majoring in Dairy Science and Global Agriculture. A 2017 graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Sleepy Eye, Isabella will be a freshman at Iowa State University this fall, majoring in Dairy Science. Crystal will be a senior, and Sophia a freshman, at St. Mary's. Both are active in school activities and will continue with their farm work and 4-H and FFA activities.

“Each and every one of the girls works hard for our farm; each has unique talents that makes them an expert at a task,” said Mary. “Some are really good with newborn calves, some are skilled at milking cows and handling large animals, and others have more skill at running a skid loader or can whip up a meal while everyone else is covering the work outside.”

Mary said they all pitch in when the work needs to be done, so they can all spend family time together or to help out when someone else has a meeting, parade or social event that they need to be at. “Changing gears at a moment’s notice, and problem solving, are skills our girls have learned on the farm,” explained Mary. “You never know when a new baby is going to arrive, or that 19 head of young heifers decide they can escape their pen at 9 p.m. and walk all over the farm. Our girls have seen it and been there to help.”

Tom and Mary are voting members and delegates to Dairy Farmers of America and are involved in the Minnesota and National Brown Swiss Associations. The family is active in St. Mary’s Parish of Sleepy Eye.

Mary shared how important family is for their farm operation. “Tom is a man of detail and animal instinct; he manages the dairy. Mark is a man of patience and environmental awareness; he manages the crops,” she said. “Each part of the operation serves the other to make the farm work smoothly. The brothers have been each other’s sounding board for new ideas and financial crossroads. Their father died early in their farming careers and decisions and risks to be taken were a collaboration of the two young minds.”

Mary’s farm duties include doing the bookwork involving employees, taxes and paying the bills. (Tom does the herd management record keeping.) She also keeps up with education for care of the calves and helps milk when needed. Plus, like any full-time farmer, she does anything else that needs to be done.

In reflecting on the recognition as a farm family of the year, Mary said, “To be a 'farm family' is a very intertwined occupation and one very unique to agriculture; one that is a gift from God to care for his animals and the earth, that none of us would trade for anything.”

Farm families of the year were recognized at Farmfest on Thursday, Aug. 3. The Portner family will also be recognized on Friday, Aug. 11, at 2 p.m. at the Brown County Free Fair, prior to annual 4-H Livestock Premium Auction.

Families receiving honors were selected by their local county Extension committees and have demonstrated a commitment to enhancing and supporting agriculture and agriculture production.

“These farm families are a major driver of Minnesota's economy and the vitality of Minnesota's rural communities,” said Bev Durgan, dean of University of Minnesota Extension. “The University of Minnesota is proud to recognize these farm families for their contributions to agriculture and their communities.”