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Thursday, December 16, 2021

Maintaining a Heritage of Farming, Regardless of Product

Hallaway Dairy Farm in Delhi, NY, September 1999. USDA Photo. (Public Domain)

Every so often I read an article about how the independent dairy producers are struggling, despite record high production. For example, just this past August in the northeastern United States, 89 dairy farmers were informed that their contracts with Horizon Organic, owned by Danone, would be terminated effective August 2022. In a more recent development, Danone now says that it will extend the contracts by 6 months, provide a 'transition payment' to the farmers, and look into what it calls 'co-investment solutions' with government officials. This is only one example of the larger problem facing independent dairy producers, and I think that the narrative framing is part of the problem.

Time and again in articles about the situation of independent dairy producers we're told how many generations the farm has been in business with a particular family. 
Having grown up on a family farm, son of a man who was part of the 4th generation farming in Missouri, I appreciate the profound sense of connection felt between people, their heritage, and the land. At the same time, that doesn't mean we always farmed in the same way.

I have no idea what my great-great grandfather Adam Gonnermann raised on his farm. He was a blacksmith from Germany who operated a smithy in Hurdland, Missouri while also farming. I suspect that his sons bore the brunt of most of the farm work, though I can't say for sure. I do know that one of his sons carried on the family farm, while the others moved on to other states, mostly to do the same. My grandfather, Charles Gonnerman, raised Shropshire sheep. His youngest son John, my dad, excelled with Chester White hogs for a good while and wanted nothing to do with sheep. When dad foresaw what was going to happen with CAFO operations destroying the hog market, he sold out of them and focused on his Angus cattle (which he'd always had as well).

My dad was a 4th generation farmer. Not a 4th generation sheep farmer. I don't know that my grandfather was a 3rd generation sheep farmer, either. Yet, they were farmers. They raised what made sense to them at the time, and that was their legacy. If I were an independent dairy farmer I believe I'd be using the borrowed time I'm on to begin updating my skill set and shifting operations to something else. At least diversifying the portfolio as a beginning. Almond milk is popular, so in regions where it can grow, maybe plant those. Perhaps remain with cattle but switch to beef production rather than milk. 

While there are accounts of dairy farmers doing just that, I still keep seeing stories like this one with farmers pinning hopes on another company, Stonyfield Organic, which is saying it will take on some of the farmers impacted by the Danone situation. That's all well and good, but it remains that the dairy farmers are attempting to rely on a contract with a single buyer, with no assurance that down the line they'll face yet another crisis of termination. 

The current model is unsustainable. Dairy farms depending on single corporate buyers just won't work. The system is rigged in this and other ways, yes, but at the same time I don't understand the determination to stay in dairy. Citing 'family tradition' doesn't help pay the bills or keep the farm.