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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: July 11, 2019

Janie Thibodeau Martin

There are several ways to tell our dairy industry, here in the "dairyland" state, is in big trouble. The hard fact is we lost 300 dairy farms, mostly "family owned/operated," perhaps with some hired help, between January and May of this year. In April alone 90 ceased operation, about three per day that month.

I can see the trend looking through the local "shopping gazette" delivered to my mailbox. The last four pages are often devoted to "complete herd dispersal" auctions, including not long ago a venerable farm with high-quality cattle located just a couple of miles from my home.

The data says we are down to 8,200 farms, and losing more every day. I don't know how many we had at the peak of our state's dairy industry, but during a drive through the country all you have to do is look at the dilapidated barns, abandoned pastures and fallow fields to know what we've already lost.

I have a lot of empathy and admiration for shift workers, having some exposure to that lifestyle. But the life of a farm family is also shift work " with the shift being every single day and every single night, 365 days a year. And it is a family shift, because the entire family lives the life. Maybe one person works outside the home, to have insurance coverage and a separate and secure income stream, but everyone knows the whole family going anywhere together in the morning and evening milking times will be rare. During peak crop planting and harvesting, the milking chores continue while already long hours are extended even further. No one knows what the weather will bring; when the vet must be summoned at some unholy hour for a sick or injured animal, or critical equipment might fail. Replacing farm equipment is shockingly expensive, and it is nearly impossible to justify investing in new equipment.

I finally gave up stacking hay for my two horses a couple of years ago. My body is no longer up to the physical work it takes. But farmers, their partners and kids do this kind of work as a necessity, and they do it in below zero temperatures, during lightning storms, and during the heat, flies and misery of summer.

Prices for milk are outside the control of the producer, and right now, the price for milk does not create any profit for the farm family. None of us can ask them to work as hard and as long as they do, for nothing. They aren't quitting because they don't like the hours, the hard work, or the unpredictability of their lives. They are quitting because like us, they have to make a living. The days of children growing up on the family farm and then running that farm themselves are numbered.

A few farmers have found a niche producing organic milk and crops; some eke out a living by renting land to wind generation or leasing land for hunting. But the trend overall is to huge, "factory farms," run by hired help on a massive scale. Some neighbors do not welcome these operations, and they pose environmental challenges that small farms do not. You will not see these cows out in the warm breeze cropping grass " they are widgets in a machine, without a name.

Recently a factory farm in Indiana got a lot of attention for their animal husbandry practices. Fair Oaks Farm was forced to apologize when video surfaced of four hired farm workers and a truck driver kicking calves in the face, hitting them with objects and abusing them in other shameful ways. (I saw some of this video " it is completely appalling.) The abuse was pervasive and occurred over a period of months. The factory farm owner said these workers were not following their training " I ask why is training necessary to inform anyone not to kick a calf in the face? Thanks to the person who knew this activity was going on and got hired to work there, with their video resulting in at least a temporary improvement at this one farm. The basic problem here is hired workers tend widgets. Some have no empathy for the animals, they get paid the same way whether they are kind or cruel. When I hear agricultural interests lobbying for a law against taking video in factory farms, I think "those who fear the light are hiding in the darkness for a reason."

As a consumer, it seems there is not a lot I can do to help sustain our family farms. I am willing to pay more for dairy " but it is hard for me to distinguish between family farm milk and factory farm milk. Perhaps sticking to organic would be a way to avoid factory farm produced dairy? If anyone knows how to do this, I'd love your advice. And I certainly am happy to patronize farm stands every chance I get. The produce may not look as "pretty" as that in the chain grocery, but I know it will taste twice as good.

In the meantime, I will pray for, respect and admire our remaining family farms. You are a resourceful, hardworking people and you add much to our communities. God bless you and I hope some way is found to reverse this sad trend of losses.



You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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