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.