David Jones, a former organic dairy farmer, peered out over his property

David Jones, a former organic dairy farmer, peered out over his property on the outskirts of Belle Plaine. At the end of last year, Jones gave up his milking operation and today is a professional driver.

Photo by Casey Ek

Have you ever visited your grandpa’s farm? That’s a question Mark Klehr posed when asked about what people stand to lose if small-scale dairy operations go by the way side.

But recent comments from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have been cause for concern.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue told reporters following his appearance at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin last week. “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or profitability.”

Nationwide and in Minnesota, the number of dairy farms has been in steady decline for the last generation. Currently, there are around 3,470 dairy farms managing  460,000 cattle, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. In 2017, there were 4,746 farms. In 1997, there were nearly 10,000 farms.

For Klehr, an award-winning dairy farmer, and David Jones, a former dairy farmer, farm consolidation is nothing new for the industry. But neither thought it would happen to dairy.

“What we’re seeing is the chicken-ization of  the dairy industry,” Jones, who now makes a living as a professional driver, said, comparing the dairy industry transformation to that of the chicken industry. “We all knew it was going to happen, but none of us thought it was going to happen this fast.”

“We all thought it was too hands-on,” Klehr said of the collecting milk from his farm on the outskirts of Belle Plaine.

Klehr, whose family was named the 2019 Scott County Farm Family of the Year by University of Minnesota Extension, stated that family operations like his are fading for a variety of reasons, most notably, smaller operations’ inability to purchase the computers and machinery necessary to run an operation as efficiently as large-scale operations. Klehr estimated that a common entry point into having a fully mechanized operation would cost at least $500,000.

Given that Klehr already works seven days a week, that step seems unlikely.

Klehr, like many others, believes that without a farm being handed down to a younger generation, the likelihood of a small-scale operation is next to none.

“For a young guy getting started, the investment is risky,” Klehr said, while working in his milking station after the sun had gone down Monday night, Oct. 7. “They don’t make any money.”

This pinching of the market has led many farmers to leave the industry, either through being forced out, or in Jones’s case, by choice.

Up until last December, David Jones ran an organic dairy operation. But with dairy production being at a market surplus, prices haven’t been what they need to be in order to make a living with an organic operation. So seeing a lack of available help and noticing compounding health issues, Jones “lost interest” in continuing his operation.

 “Farming is like a disease that there is no cure for. It’s part of you. You can’t get rid of it,” Jones said. “Some guys feel a sense of failure when they give it up.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, those people whose occupation is involved in farming, fishing or forestry are more than five times more likely to commit suicide. But Jones is one of many examples of farmers who were able to land on their feet after closing up shop.

Since he began driving professionally, Jones has noticed his mental and physical health improve dramatically.

Klehr stated that despite the long hours and difficulties broadcast in the news, working a small operation is what he is meant to be doing. The long hours are hours spent at home. He knows each of his cows intimately. These are aspects that Klehr believes are missing from large operations.

“I like it, obviously,” Klehr said of dairy farming.

Klehr added that it is likely his son, Marcus, will take over the family’s operation. He doesn’t believe it’s impossible for small operations to survive into the future but acknowledges that it will be a difficult task.

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