In 1971, I was a confused eight year old who cried in horror as men lashed my grandfather William’s fourteen, beloved Guernsey cows in an attempt to make them walk up the steep ramp into a cattle truck destined for the auction barn. The sober event was dictated by the decision not to spend money to install a modern bulk tank, essentially ending his dairy career.
In 1984 with a Morrisville College degree, I spent my life’s savings to improve my grandfather’s barn, and install that bulk tank. I started shipping milk from my 34 cows at the same time the government and industry were killing cows during the buyout program. The bulk tank was filled to capacity every other day, but the double digit interest rates, long hours and $10 milk of 1990, finally made no financial sense. Before we could become beholden to the lenders or worse yet, lose the farm, I quit my dream of being a life-long dairyman and sold my cows.
The worst day of my life was walking into an empty barn knowing I had failed; or that America had failed to support me in painstakingly producing quality dairy products. I hurt for a long time but eventually found other work/careers, and currently manage the farm as a grazing operation. My family has persevered, but has never forgotten the sting of the “socialist” milk pricing system.
A few months ago, a former Marine and lifelong dairy farmer I know sold his beloved dairy cows because he and his grandson couldn’t see any financial future in it, even with their paid-for farm. He remarked to me, “A carton of cigarettes brings more than the milk I make.” I felt a lump in my throat as he desperately tried to hold back his tears over this simple fact: He couldn’t pass the family business to the next generation. It is sad, very sad. And today, if you quit and try to start again, there is little interest in your milk unless you’re gobbled up by an established farm. Even then it’s precarious.
Sadly, these real-life experiences harden my heart for the “industry” of dairy farming. Lately this frustration erupted over a Cooperative Extension pamphlet on the “do’s and don’ts for dairy farmers facing financial difficulty”. (Click to download.) Bullet point #15 suggested farmers should, “Consider off-farm work by ALL family members” to just survive. That really hurt!
It hit home as I personally know many dairy farmers and their spouses trying in vain to do this. Here’s the real danger: In the stress to make ends meet, you’re one injury away from losing the farm or worse, your life. Is this what America wants for their farmers, because it’s not just dairy farmers ya know? All sectors are feeling ill lately.
What I’m most scared of for our region in this difficult time is the silent erosion of the farm as the foundation. I’m calling it the “Giving Farm”, patterned after Shel Silverstein’s parable, “The Giving Tree.”
It’s the story of the unintentional consequences of taking too much and not being able to reinvest in the future resource. The Giving Farm in my neighborhood starts at the soil level, trying to maintain crop yields without needed nutrients in an effort to save money for something else. Without a healthy crop, yields suffer and reduced animal performance can lower margins. If the debt is not manageable, the farm is on the proverbial hamster wheel.
The spiral continues as pay prices never hit the highs enough to recover from the lower lows. “Milk more cows they say”, “Become more efficient” they say, “Sell off stuff” they say, “Lower family living expense”s they say, and meet with FarmNet or clergy to help. Where does it end?
With the sale of the farm with its soils depleted, buildings in disrepair and a family barely able to continue from eating all the equity to support the monopoly milk companies who ironically maintain their profitable margins.
The Giving Farm in the era of climate change and depressed farm income has tried in earnest to offset rising health insurance premiums, to pay the property taxes, put the children through college, allow for a rare vacation and maybe, just maybe, carved out a corner lot for the farmers to retire to. The farm and its precious topsoil are quickly becoming more attractive for building lots than for the next generations to thrive.
With the recent elections behind us, it would be my hope that with critical and transparent thinking, we could come together as a community to address the realities that would give our farmers and their kids a chance in agriculture. We must not exhaust our farm’s resources in order to prop up America’s insatiable appetite for wants.
“I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am an old stump. I am sorry…”
“I don’t need very much now, said the boy, just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, well, an old stump is a good place for sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did. And the tree was happy.”
~ Shel Silverstein.
Thanks for the article.
I am sorry but I couldn’t push the button on the giving tree.I have read the story and it is beautiful but too painful for me to read again.
I agree with Jim’s comments and my family has moved the farm into the food business.We are also involved in Ag tourisim( something I said I would never do) however our family calls it a consumer education opportunity and I must admit the general consumer knows very little about what we do or what our problems are.Our location makes this an opportunity for us,however, many farms are not close to population centers as we are.
Ag needs to rethink its objectives.We have been told that we must feed a world with an ever growing population and this is why we must be constantly increasing our production yet we are wasting a great amount of the food we are already producing and putting our planet in peril doing it.Maybe our objective should be what Ag can do to save the planet. We
It is my strong belief that a cornerstone problem is the lack of respect and understanding that the average person has for the land in general, and in this circumstance, farms in particular. Witness the outrageously high property taxes that farms must pay, leading them to chunk up and sell off portions of their farms just to stave off the end a little longer. Once agricultural land is gone, we will NEVER get it back. We have artificially cheap food in this country, and farmers themselves are being bled to death financially–and once the farmers are gone, we won’t get them back either, certainly not the institutional knowledge that they take with them.
When people ask me why I do what I do, my answer is always the same: So that more kids have the opportunity to enjoy the type of childhood I enjoyed growing up on a working family farm.
Within the commodity/industrial model, it is increasingly difficult to allow young children to work along side their parents or older siblings. The slim profit margins often prohibit young adults from joining in the family business. It saddens me to see the lack of the next generation being incorporated into the multigenerational family farm or ranch.
The one bright spot in agriculture that I see is in the local food market. The only happy dairy farmers I meet are the ones who are able to name their price for milk and value-added dairy products in a local market. Unfortunately, their loyal customer base represents a tiny fraction of the entire dairy product consuming population.
For you and I to see farm families thrive the way we did in our youth, we need to encourage and support more and more farmers to divorce themselves from the ‘industry’ and enter into the food business.
I couldn’t agree more. I run a small herdshare and grassfed beef operation. I see a lot of these articles about how farmers are hurting from things “out of their control”. Another one this week is the “Dairy Crisis Affects Us All” but definitely not limited to just the dairy industry.
What is in their control is the ability to direct sale and market their story to the public. It’s hard work (working with the public always is) but no harder than not being able to pay the bills. We’re finally turning a profit after 4 years and I’m starting to seriously consider kicking the “off farm” job.
Once you build meaningful relationships with customers, they happily pay a higher amount for our product. It’s a road less traveled but definitely a more stable one (and enjoyable). What commodity farmer gets Christmas cards from their customers telling them how much they appreciate their quality product and hard work?!
I encourage other farmers to be evangelists of their product – don’t rely on big ag to sell your product for you, the only thing they’re interested in is profit for themselves.
PS: Thanks for what you do and your dedication to supplying excellent grazing information. Reading your MiG book was one of the key turning points in how I managed my animals.
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