Dairy farming becoming a trade of the past

By Megan R. Harrell

Star Correspondent
There was a time in America's history when big red barns, and black-and- white Holsteins speckled the rural roads all across the nation. In the post World War II era, just about everybody lived on a farm, or knew somebody who did.
In the 1950's and 60's, farming held a promising future for men eager to support their young families. The sound economics of farming, along with the wholesome way of life it offered, was appealing to many.
Today, farming communities are all but extinct from American culture. Plummeting milk prices, the lack of workers, and the increasing cost of machinery have forced dairy farms out of business.
Over the last 20 years, the number of dairy farms in the midwest has dropped almost 75 percent. The number of dairy cows has decreased 50 percent, while milk production is at a record low.
The effects of the changes in the dairy industry are being felt here in Carter County as well. Bill Allen, 88, operated one of the largest dairies in the county for nearly 60 years.
Allen retired in the early 1990's but is still active in the day-to-day aspects of farming. Over the years, he has seen many changes in the business that used to employ a large portion of the county.
"It used to be that the only jobs were dairy farmers, mail carriers, and doctors," Allen said.
Allen took over operations at his old homestead, located off Wilbur Dam Road, in 1930. He did not begin selling milk for profit until the late 1940's.
"In 1945, a lot of people were selling more and more milk," Allen said. "We got up to selling eight 10-gallon cans a day, and we milked them by hand then."
Over the years, the Allen farm has grown along with advancements in technology. At his height as a dairy farmer, Allen owned as many as 600 head of cattle at one time.
"We filled our 3,100 gallon tank every other day. That is 1,500 gallons of milk a day," Allen said. "That put a lot of glasses of milk on the table."
The profits from his large dairy allowed Allen to expand his farm to other areas in the community. He purchased additional properties in Clover Branch, Dog Town, and Lynn Valley.
Today, Allen, like a lot of veteran dairy farmers, believes several changes have made it increasingly difficult to make a living in the industry.
The amount of up front cost needed to purchase land, equipment, and livestock is far too high in comparison the continual decline in milk prices. According to the Agricultural Economist Newsletter, falling milk prices have translated to a 30 percent decrease in gross income for most small farmers.
Some farmers believe the federal government could save the farming industry by regulating milk prices. Even if the government did come to the aid of the farmer, there are other factors to consider.
Allen notes that those aspiring to become dairy farmers have a lot of obstacles other than declining milk prices to overcome. "I think if you gave somebody a pretty good farm, equipment to run it, and a herd of cows, they would be pretty lucky to make a living," Allen said. "It would be almost impossible for somebody to start in the dairy business now in this area, Carter, Johnson and Greene County."
Factors in farming such as the increased cost of machinery, and labor add to the plight of farmers. Allen stated that it used to be easier to find good workers for less pay.
The high cost of labor and operation has forced many farmers out of business all across the nation, and farms are no longer being passed down to younger generations.
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), has been tracking the closings of farms nationwide. The South has suffered the greatest percentage decline. There are 7.4 percent fewer dairy farms in the region and the numbers continue to fall. The Northeast experienced the smallest drop, with only 3.8 percent fewer dairies in operation. Dairy numbers decreased by 5.3 percent in the Midwest, and 6.1 percent in the West.
The AFBF does show an increase in the number of large dairies, a trend that only adds to the troubles of local farmers trying to keep their small dairies in operation.