Family dairy farming is dying
By Jim Goodman [Excerpts]
Ed note: As of 2011 — as is true with much of the country’s wealth — the top 10% of farms in size account for more than 70% of cropland in the United States; the top 2.2% take up more than a third.
After 40 years of dairy farming, I sold my herd of cows this summer. The herd had been in my family since 1904; I know all 45 cows by name. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over our farm — who would? Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide.
My retirement was mostly voluntary. Premature, but there is some solace in having a choice. Unlike many dairy farmers, I didn’t retire bankrupt. But for my wife and me, having to sell our herd was a sign — of the economic death not just of rural America but of a way of life. It is heartbreaking to walk through our barn and know that those stalls will remain empty. Knowing that our losses reflect the greater damage inflicted on entire regions is worse.
When I started farming in 1979, the milk from 45 cows could pay the bills, cover new machinery and buildings, and allow us to live a decent life and start a family. My father had farmed through the Great Depression, and his advice — “don’t borrow any more than you have to” — stuck with me and probably saved the farm many times over.
We survived the 1980s, when debt loads became impossible for many farmers and merely incredibly onerous for the lucky ones. Interest rates went up , export markets plummeted after a wheat embargo against the Soviet Union, oil prices soared, inflation skyrocketed and land prices began to collapse. More than 250,000 farms died that decade, and more than 900 farmers committed suicide in the upper Midwest alone.
Farmers felt the impact most directly, but there were few in rural communities who were untouched. All the businesses that depended on farm dollars watched as their incomes dried up and the tax base shrank. Farm foreclosures meant fewer families and fewer kids, so schools were forced to close . The Main St cafes—where farmers talked prices, the weather and politics — shut down as well.
As devastating as the 1980s were for farmers, today’s crisis is worse. Ineffective government subsidies and insurance programs are worthless in the face of plummeting prices and oversupply (and tariffs certainly aren’t helping). The glut of organic milk has caused a 30% decrease in the price I was paid for my milk over the past two years. Wisconsin, where I live, had lost 382 dairy farms by August; last year, the number at the same point was 283. The despair is palpable; suicide is a fact of life, though many farm suicides are listed as accidents.
When family farms go under, the people leave and the buildings are often abandoned, but the land remains, often sold to the nearest land baron. Hillsides and meadows that were once grasslands for pasturing cattle become acre upon acre of corn-soybean agriculture. Farming becomes a business where it used to be a way of life. With acreages so large, owners use pesticides and chemical fertilizers to ensure that the soil can hold an unsustainable rotation of plants upright, rather than caring for the soil as a living biotic community.
All the machinery has become bigger, noisier, and some days it runs around the clock. Manure from the mega-farms is hauled for miles in huge tanker trucks or pumped through irrigation lines onto crop fields. The smell, the flies and the airborne pathogens that go with it have effectively done away with much of the peaceful countryside I used to know.
Organic dairying has become a victim of its own success. It was profitable and thus fell victim to the “get big” model. Now, our business is dominated by large organic operations that are more factory than farm. Although small organic farms pioneered the concept, organic certification has become a label mega-farms co-opted and used to break us. Six dairy farms in Texas feed thousands of cows organic grain and stored forage, with no access to a blade of grass, they produce more milk than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. Then they ship it north, undercutting our price. We can’t make ends meet and are forced out of the business. We played by the rules, but we no longer have a level playing field.
Despite this, I hung on, but I couldn’t continue milking cows indefinitely. Perhaps it’s for the best. A few years before we sold our herd, we had to install huge fans in our barn — the summers were getting too hot for the cows to be out during the heat of the day. Climate change would have made our future in farming that much harder. We could have adapted, I think, but we ran out of time. That’s why, after my 40 chances, I’m done.