A couple of weeks ago, our veterinarian told me that when he started in the late 70’s, he serviced over 81 dairy farms in our county alone. As of last week, he has only 10 farms left and some of them are beef herds.
On an Illinois farm blog represented by large “family” farmers, running thousands of acres each, the comment was made that the consumer vision of family farms run by family members, milking cows in a big red barn, isn’t the truth anymore. Farms have had to evolve into larger entities run by a paid labor force. Wives don’t work on the farm or drive tractors anymore, but they are now considered the “new face of farming”.
I heard the other day that farmers are no longer baling small square bales of hay because we’ve found ways to get away from the labor of handling small bales. Farmers now want more time off, and finding ways to get off the farm and hire the labor are changing farms. We still bale small square bales of hay, usually my daughter and I on the wagon and my sons in the hay mow or doing the baling, and hiring their friends to help. There is no doubt finding help is near impossible anymore, but farm kids used to bale all summer, then go to football practice, now practice takes up all summer. We put in between 10,000 and 15,000 small bales every year, and actually look forward to all working together to get it done.
We milk our 81 cows and put hay in our big red barn that was built in 1915. We live in our home built in 1901, lived in by 4 generations of my husband’s family. We have two sons who have elected on their own to stay on our farm. We have one daughter married and another who works off the farm and on the farm when she has a day off. While I don’t drive tractors on a daily basis, I can drive every one on our farm, and unless I’m doing something for Organic Valley, I’m here every day.
How are we able to do this? I’ve said many times how our farm was saved in 2002 when Organic Valley stopped to pick up our first load of organic milk. I have watched over the last 12 years many farms in our town go out of milking. When we went organic, we were told “it’s nice you want to do a little niche market, but we need to support several families, and organic just wouldn’t work for us”. That farm is no longer milking. Of the 8 farms I used to pass on my way to town, only 3 are still milking, including us.
Is this an easy life? No, you have to be committed to staying home if an animal is sick, missing events because milking ran long, cows got out, hay needed to be made, and there is not a lot, or any, time off. But then, we get to watch generations of animals grow up and run through pastures. We get to work the fields that the first Westaby worked back in 1861. I get to watch my children grow up and learn to love this land my husband grew up on. I hear the birds singing early in the morning and all throughout the day until the sun goes down. Smelling the sweet cut hay as it dries in the fields, and so much more.
I’m so grateful to Organic Valley for believing in us all those years ago, and yet still today. Our farm turned 153 years old this year. We are the 5th and 6th generations to farm here. If the founding farmers had not taken the chance back in 1988, to try something new for farmers, we would be one of the above statistics.