Dairy remains one of the biggest overall drivers of the North Country economy. Yet half the dairy farms of twenty years ago are gone today. The average age of a dairy farmer is almost 60 years old. And some years it costs more to milk a cow than you can sell the milk for.
Still, young farmers are going into dairy. And as David Sommerstein reports, they're bringing a sharp business acumen and a passion to the barn.
Vroman, who grew up in Adams, just south of Watertown, and graduated from SUNY Potsdam's Crane...
I’m at Derek and Jake Conway’s farm in the Tug Hill Plateau town of Turin five minutes. And it’s like everything’s at double speed. Derek’s readying the tractor to hay this afternoon. "Got 300 acres down right now, I think, so hopefully everything will go alright and we’ll get it in," he said.
Inside, Jake’s washing down the bulk tank while a couple Latino hired men hose down the milk parlor. Then the brothers meet in a closet with a refrigerated canister to prepare to breed two cows. "Right now I got the breeding rod, Derek’s getting the semen out, it’s a quarter cc of semen," Jake explains.
They grab plastic gloves, some paper towels, and next thing you know Derek’s arm is elbow deep inside a cow. "Trying to get through her cervix right now. Now I’m depositing the semen. Now hopefully she’s pregnant in 30 days," he said.
Dairying isn’t for the faint of heart. Cows are splattering pee and poop all around us.
It isn’t for the lazy, either. Derek and his dad work from 4 in the morning to dinnertime; Jake from 10 in the morning to the last milking at 1am. Jake chuckles when I ask what his friends think.
"I shouldn’t say, but it bothers me when they say they’re overworked. It’s like c’mon, really? I love working hard, it’s what I do. But it’s like you’re not working hard, you’re putting in 40 hours a week, y’know, and then they complain," he said.
Where most young people aspire to jobs with sane hours, vacation, health care, and a steady paycheck, Derek at 28, Jake at 23, have almost none of that. But they’re the third generation on this beautiful farm overlooking the Black River Valley and the Western Adirondacks. They took the same dairy program at Morrisville State College as their father. Derek says this is what they’ve always wanted to do.
"When I was four years old, dad had, I think it was a video for a feed company, and they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be a farmer. My parents wanted me to go to school to be a doctor, but…This isn’t saying we’re not successful at doing this, that’s not what they’re saying. Just that Dad knew it was tough when he was growing up, you know it is a tough business, it’s very demanding, hard work, sometimes we can’t even pay the bills. I guess my parents just wanted us to know that we didn’t have to come back here if we didn’t want to," Derek said.
Seen through a different lens, Derek and Jake have what most 20-somethings only dream of. They have equity and land. They’re their own bosses. And they have a plan for growth. Jake, Derek, and their dad milk almost 200 cows now. They want to milk 600 in 5 years, enough to provide for their future families and their parents and to maybe get some time off.
In the “get big or get out’ continuum, Jake and Derek stand solidly on “get big.” They’ve nearly paid off this new 400,000 dollar freestall barn and milking parlor. Next they’re buying a neighbors’ land and building a manure pit, and there’s always aging tractors to worry about. It’s this eye on efficiency and business planning that distinguishes the new generation of dairy farmers. "It is pushing that pencil. It is figuring things out and planning it. And not saying that the other generations didn’t do that, but the younger farmers are doing that," he said.
Bernadette Logozar of Cornell Cooperative Extension says it’s easier for young farmers to think outside the traditional “way of doing things” to make their milk cheaper to produce. They might be grazing in some fashion. They may not be raising all the feed themselves. They might contract that out because it’s more cost-effective for them," she said.
Other young farmers are finding ways to make their milk more valuable. They’re going organic, or eschewing the bulk milk commodity system altogether. They’re turning their milk into artisanal cheese or yogurt or selling it as raw milk. Severin von Tscharner Fleming is a co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
A commodity price is 11 dollars per hundredweight. For raw milk, you can sell it for 84 dollars per hundredweight. Those are the market conditions, and there are a lot of politics behind that, but we as farmers are acting as market players," she said.
It’s not just business for young farmers, though. Meet 26 year-old Gus Tabolt of Croghan, about half an hour’s drive north of the Conway Farm. He milks 150 cows in a free-stall barn he built when he was 19. "I think it takes a lot better of a businessman to run a dairy farm nowadays," Tabolt said.
Tabolt’s standing in a green cornfield, tinkering with his tractor. He’s getting the same price for his milk that his uncle did 30 years ago, but everything else has gone up. "You have to be a better businessman to run it to survive it, but I do see that there’s a future in it," he said.
But Tabolt says he’s chosen that future because it’s in his blood. Tabolt says it makes him proud to preserve a North Country way of life. "I like seeing the open meadows, the framing equipment running, the dairy cows out, and feeling the breeze like we’re standing out here right now, and the sun and breeze blowing across the meadows. I don’t really see anything more enjoyable than that," he said.
Tabolt’s dad and 11-year-old sister Emma roll up in a truck. Emma’s psyched because she registered her first heifer, Suzie. "She’s a Charolais. She’s registered. She’s white. She’s kinda fat and short," Emma explains. Emma says she, too, will be a dairy farmer. "I just feel more at home on the farm," she said. Some people choose dairy farming. For others, dairy chooses them.