Brad Donnay and his 16-month-old son Thomas visit the goats on their farm.

Four generations of farmers nurture the earth, their faith and each other

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Along the winding back roads of rural Kimball along one of the southernmost borders of the Diocese of St. Cloud, the picturesque green pastures appear almost untouched except by the animals grazing there.

On top of one of the many rolling hills sits the home, farm and livelihood of Brad and Leanne Donnay and their four children, Joseph, Michael, Katheryn and Thomas.

Together, they own and operate Donnay Dairy, where they raise goats and produce certified organic goat cheese.

Both Brad and Leanne descend from generations of farming families who instilled in them a deep love for the land, a strong sense of family and a rich appreciation for their Catholic faith — all values they strive to pass down to their children.

“For us, raising our family on the farm, going to church together, praying together, working together and just being an example for the kids is how we live our faith day-to-day,” Brad said. “We show them how to take care of the land, have a strong work ethic and teach them to treat others the way they want to be treated.”

These core principles are just the thing Pope Francis is discussing in his new encyclical on ecology, “Laudato Si’.”

Work hard, play hard, pray hard


Five of the Donnay siblings pose on a newly-painted tractor on the farm in Kimball.

Brad is one of Robert and Ethel Donnay’s 10 living children (one daughter, Sheila, died in infancy). He and his siblings learned from their parents’ example of always working hard.

“You never got bored on the farm,” he said. “You could always see at the end of the day what you accomplished. Growing up, we thought the city kids had it easier. But looking back, I think we were the ones who had the privilege.”

Gazing south and west from Brad and Leanne’s front steps, the original Donnay farm can be seen in the distance. Robert’s grandfather bought the land and Robert took over the farm from his father in 1962. He married Ethel, who grew up on a dairy farm near Melrose, in 1968. They retired from farming in 1999.

Now, Brad’s brother Kevin and his wife, Erin, own and operate the 60-head dairy farm. It is also certified organic and uses rotational grazing practices, a process where livestock is moved from one pasture to another to allow the land to regenerate.

That is the legacy Robert and Ethel hoped to leave for their children and
grandchildren — to be guided by their Catholic faith and to take care of the land for future generations. “We did the best we could and it is amazing to see our kids do the same,” Ethel said. “To see them going organic, that is a big plus.”

Their daughter, Lisa, and her husband, Larry Ludwig, own 115 acres near Richmond that was part of Larry’s three-generational family farm. With their four sons, Trevyn, Taylor, Teagyn and Treyce, they raise grass-fed beef, pigs, chickens, miniature donkeys and meat goats. They plant corn and alfalfa. She recalls, too, how her parents encouraged them to take an active role in everything they did.

“We worked together, we had fun together, we went to church together,” she said. “Everybody had a role, everybody played their part. It didn’t matter if you were the oldest or the very youngest. We were taught to take care of things and to be responsible. By giving us chores to do that involved taking care of the animals, we were taught to care about something else and to put their needs before ours.”

The Ludwigs, members of Assumption Parish in Eden Valley, encourage their sons to be participants in the same ways their parents did.

“It is important to teach our children to care for others and to take care of the land so that they can continue the farming tradition that has been taught to us,” Lisa said. “Both Larry and I come from strong faith-based farming families and we want that to continue in our own children.”

Since Lisa is a special education teacher for the ROCORI school district and Larry is a journeyman union electrician, there are a lot of things that need to be done around the Ludwig Double L Ranch, as they affectionately call their land. Their sons help with the daily care of the animals and the family’s vegetable garden. They also find time to be involved in 4-H and the two oldest boys are members of the high school Future Farmers of America club. In their parish, Lisa is a communion minister and the boys are altar servers.

“By being involved in the different activities, this teaches the kids the importance of giving back to the community,” she said. “It’s like anything — you can show up for something and not be an active participant, but you get a lot more out of it if you put more into it. It’s the same with farming. I can throw seeds in the ground and let them go and maybe something will happen, or I can take the time to nurture it.”

Like her daughter, Ethel sees her faith a lot like farming. “Just like when you plant a seed, you take care of it and all of a sudden, it is up. It’s amazing,” Ethel said. “When there’s rain and things are good, you thank the Lord. When it’s dry, you ask the Lord to send some rain.”

Staying connected


Brad Donnay packages goat cheese in the family’s cheese plant.

Brad and Leanne also take an active role in their parish and faith life at Holy Cross in Pearl Lake. Leanne is a member of the parish council and teaches part time at the Catholic school and they serve as chairs of the fish fry. They are also members of the Catholic Order of Foresters and were a featured family for Catholic United Financial.

Their duties toward the environment are closely linked with how they treat others. Personal relationships are important to them and are evident in all aspects of their business.

“When the cheese is ready to be delivered, we often go together as a family,” Leanne said. “Brad likes to keep that personal connection with the people. And it is really good for the kids to see the process from beginning to end.”


Robert and Ethel Donnay, center, are surrounded by members of their family. Clockwise from left, Lisa Ludwig, Lucas Salinas (a foreign exchange student from Mexico), Michael, Brad, Thomas, Leanne, Joseph and Katheryn Donnay.

Brad describes their operation as a farmstead — which includes their home, 10 acres of land, some outbuildings, a cheese plant and milking parlor — because they don’t buy any milk or cheese from outside their farm.

“Our farm is sustainable in the sense that we live off our farm, our main income comes from it,” he explained.

They use sustainable practices like rotational grazing and they feed the whey that runs off during the cheese-making process back to the goats, “which they love,” Brad said. They grow apple trees, raise honeybees and plant a vegetable garden. They also built a composting screener that breaks down waste into usable organic material for gardening, flower beds and potted plants.

“It’s the kids’ college fund,” Brad said. “They turn the pile, compost it, bag it up and they sell it.”

Brad summed it up that, for the Donnays, it all comes down to faith, family and farming.

“We tell our kids if you work hard, make a good product, be honest and treat people the way you want to be treated, you will be blessed by doing the right thing.”