small dairies

Saturday, January 26:

Snow made the trip two-hour trip home yesterday from Dalton, Ohio, where the Small Farm Institute held its annual dairy grazing conference, into a four-hour crawl.  The interstate was reasonably clear but the state routes were bad and the county roads were worse.  We had planned to stop at a farm half-way to see some New Zealand crossbred heifers.  Half a mile from our goal we had to turn back; the road was unplowed and very steep, and if we had gone down there we would have had to spend the night.

The dairy grazing conference was very interesting to us, not because we learned a lot about rotational grazing – we did not – but because of the segment of the dairying population it allowed us to see and meet.  We are acquainted with a number of commercial dairymen who have herds of several hundred grain-fed animals and make a reasonable living in return for intense and unending labor; we know the owners of several small organic all-grass dairies of thirty to fifty cows who sell to organic wholesalers and work a second job because they don’t earn a living from the farm.  The men we met this weekend were of neither class.  Instead, these farmers keep small dairies of twenty to forty cows using more or less commercial methods – grain, silage, confinement, machinery.  Most of them are only just beginning to manage their pastures and grazing animals intensively.  Only a few of them receive the higher price per hundredweight for organic milk.  Their farms are notably small, usually less than seventy acres.  Yet, unlike many farmers, they are making a good living at it.  Why is this?  We are still pondering the answer.

Maybe a person would think that the advantage they enjoy is a farm inherited complete with buildings and equipment:   not so, most of the men purchased their farms in the last twenty years and put in the buildings themselves.  Most of them farm with tractors and the ubiquitous skid-steer, not with horses or mules, although these are not unknown.   They harvest a large proportion of their fodder mechanically, their cows being fed in open sheds and lounging barns which have then to be mechanically cleared of litter and manure, like the big dairies we know only on a smaller scale.  Their operations are one-tenth the size of our big commercial friends’, and we might expect that their profits would be commensurately small.  Instead, these small farmers are almost offensively solvent, making capital improvements almost every year “as the money allows”.   Their farms have all the beauty of prosperity derived from cheerful labor.

Nearly all of these farmers are either Amish or Mennonite.

Whatever that has to do with it.

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