What happened to the dairy farms of yesteryear?
I heard this question at a meeting the other day. It came from a person who is not related to agriculture. I was a bit caught off guard at the moment as I tried to come up with a simple answer. Well, there is no simple answer.
The average person traveling in the county will see agricultural activity, but most likely can only guess what is going on. Additionally, dairy farms have gotten bigger, much bigger, than one might have grown up with or remembered from the not too distant past.
I will refer to my experience as a dairy farmer and the first hand knowledge I have of the evolution of dairy farming in the county.
The original farm where Fessenden Dairy stands today was purchased by my great-great-grandfather, Samuel C. Fessenden during the Lincoln administration, yes, 1863! He came to what is now called King Ferry with his father, Stephen, so the sixth, seventh and eighth generations are on the same land today. This simple but important feature of agriculture and dairy farming lays the foundation for what will be seen today, in 2022, across the county. Preserving a “business” for future generations is a very unique and powerful feature of agriculture.
Farms of old generally produced enough food, fiber and fuel for their own use, an easy concept to understand. Then one day, perhaps thanks to good yields, some products can be sold to a neighbour. Then, one day, perhaps, the farming family grew, creating the need for more food, fiber and fuel.
Enter the next generation on, say, farm ‘A’. A young generation decides to become a farmer, just like dad. And at the same time, perhaps, the neighbour’s son on farm “B” decides he’d rather work for the railroad, or some other job besides farming. So now the older farmer on Farm B, getting older, decides to sell his farm to Farmer A. A scenario like this can be seen as the start of a trend towards larger farms, as well than the need to support the next generation. , as in farm A.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond, more and more people left agriculture for other industries. This has created the demand for farmers to provide food, fiber and fuel far beyond their own homes. The desire to provide for others is also a very unique and powerful characteristic of farming.
For generations, the American people have had the luxury of having an abundance of food and fiber. We tend to take it for granted when we walk into a supermarket, we’ll find what we need, and more. Not all countries have this luxury. People from other countries break down in tears when they visit an American supermarket. Surprising! Yet somewhere along the line, the American consumer has grown accustomed to an abundance of food and fiber at an affordable price. This in turn exerts a degree of economic pressure at the farm level. Adapting to consumer demands for the ideal food from the ideal source is difficult and leads to increased production costs.
Back on the farm A. Dad and his son see the opportunity to produce more food and fiber in order to remain economically viable. (Although this terminology probably did not exist at the time). They increase the number of dairy cows from 5 to 10, maybe. And then, consumer pressure for a more affordable price. Well, 10 cows will no longer pay Farm A’s bill, let’s add more cows. Thus begins the era of agricultural growth, directed and produced by the consumer.
Most dairy farms were what would be considered “small” operations by today’s standards. Around the middle of the 20th century, the complexion of the average farmhouse began to change at a faster rate than ever. Farms began to specialize in certain crops or livestock in an effort to become more economically viable. We started to see large poultry, hog, dairy, agricultural and beef farms, instead of the typical diversified farms of yesteryear. The growth we see on farms is a direct response to economic sustainability, nine times out of ten.
Over the past 4 or 5 decades, dairy farms have grown significantly in this county, as well as in the United States. Our pay price for milk is set by the United States Department of Agriculture primarily to provide the consumer with a steady supply of milk at an affordable price. Dairy farmers are one of the few industries that are “price takers” and not “price makers”. Again, a very unique and powerful feature of dairy farming.
Likewise, the growth and consolidation is noticeable when looking across the country at the big-box stores, supermarkets, as well as the numerous chain stores and restaurants, which have replaced so many individual businesses and Mom’s shops. and Pop.
Year after year, profit margins for dairy farms are slim at best. We can have a “good year” every 6 to 8 years at best. Dairy farming is a long-term investment in land, livestock, machinery and other resources, not a business that can be easily started and stopped. Therefore, the commitment to produce a product goes far beyond the price a farm may receive for its product. Again, a very unique and powerful feature of dairy farming.
As input costs, such as labor, fuel, fertilizer, etc., increase, so does the need to be more efficient. Typically, by increasing the number of productive units to spread the costs. As dairy farms have increased in size, the result has been an increase in management capacity. Some farms have responded to this additional need for improved management, and unfortunately others have not. Almost every dairy farmer in this county is striving to do a better job today than yesterday, it’s in our nature and our role as environmental stewards of our resources. There will be exceptions, but as an industry we must work together to constantly improve.
Dairy farms have long been a prime example of recycling and reduction. Practices such as feeding by-products from the food industry, recycling manure as bedding and nutrients for crop growth. New technologies and practices are constantly being adapted on our farms in an effort to solidify sustainability, both environmentally and economically. Without the implementation of these core values, a dairy farm may cease to exist.
Over the years of growth in dairy farms, there has also been a growth in regulatory bodies. These agencies provide the knowledge and tools to help farms with a wide range of production-related activities as well as monitor activities that may need correction for one reason or another. This is also true for many other industries and businesses.
Some interesting facts about Cayuga County dairy farms provided by Ronald Kuck, Agriculture Program Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cayuga County:
In 1925, there were 20,882 dairy cows on 3,318 county farms producing approximately 11,281,000 gallons of milk.
In 2017, there were 42,267 dairy cows on 96 farms producing approximately 119,342,000 gallons of milk.
Average production increased from 540 gallons per cow per year in 1925 to 2824 gallons per cow per year in 2017.
Traditionally, the New York and New Jersey region has been the upstate milk market. With a New York City population of 8 million, few, if any, have a cash cow!
The dairy farms of yesteryear are still there, just consolidated. As Fessenden Dairy grew, we bought more herds in order to become sustainable, both economically and environmentally. One herd was bought from a dairy farmer who is retiring, another from a young dairy farmer who has decided to leave dairy farming to go back to university to get a law degree, and yet another who has decided to quit dairy farming to become a full-time firefighter/first responder. . These purchased cows and their subsequent progeny came from smaller dairies in Truxton, Groton and King Ferry; and now reside at Fessenden Dairy.
Today, farmers across the country are competing in a global marketplace. This may create an additional grouping of holdings. Advances in production, nutrient management, animal care and stewardship of our resources occur steadily as we navigate these ever-changing times.