A Tale of Two Dairy Farms

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Barry Estabrook


I have visited two dairy farms in the last couple of weeks. One belongs to Henry, my neighbor here in Vermont. I stopped by his place to pick up a dozen bales of mulch hay to spread on my garden, and he invited me into the barn to meet Ernie, a three-week-old bull calf he seemed particularly proud of. Ernie came trotting up to us with the rambunctious glee of an oversized Labrador pup. It was almost as if the calf knew his privileged destiny was a life of grazing on green, hilly pastures and occasionally performing the duties required of a ladies' man.

With part-time help from his wife and a hired hand, Henry milks about 65 cows, black and white Holsteins and fawn-colored Jerseys, along with mottled crossbreeds of the two. With milk prices low, Henry has been barely scraping by for the last few years. As we say in New England, he survives not so much on how much money he makes but on how much he doesn't spend. Henry's weathered, gray barns are decades past needing a coat of stain, and his rusting collection of tractors, wagons, mowers, and bailers is fast approaching antique status, kept functional only because in a previous life Henry was a farm equipment mechanic. Despite such disadvantages (or maybe because of them), Henry's milk is consistently rated as top-quality, and he gets a premium price for it.

The other dairy I visited is called Fair Oaks Farms. Owned by nine families, it is located near an interstate highway that bisects flat corn, alfalfa, and soybean fields in Indiana. Fair Oaks is one of the largest dairy farms in the United States. It houses 30,000 cows and produces enough milk to slake the thirst of the entire city of Chicago, which is located 75 miles to the north.

The cows stood, disinterestedly chewing their cud, as computers linked to transponders on their collars kept track of their milk output.

Until the 1970s, America's milk products were supplied by several hundred thousand Henrys scattered across the country. But if current trends continue, the future of milk production in the country will look a lot like Fair Oaks—huge operations with enough financial clout to deal on equal footing with dairy processing giants like Dean Foods and supermarket chains like Kroger. In 1970, there were 658,000 dairy farms in the U. S. By 2006, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, that number had fallen to 75,000, a drop of an astounding 88 percent. And the plunge continues. But in the same period, the number of mega-farms with more than 2,000 cows rose by 104 percent.

Unlike Henry's farm, Fair Oaks is "bio-secure," meaning it's off-limits to visitors and there's no scratching behind the ears of calves. But it does offer guided bus tours, so I paid the $10 entry fee, received a hot-pink wrist bracelet, and joined a group of senior citizens aboard a gleaming white bus. "As one of the largest dairy farms in the United States, Fair Oaks wanted to give the public the chance to see 21st-century agriculture up close," said Tony Wiedman, the company's marketing manager.

As we cruised at a walking pace, a recorded voice reeled off statistics that were mind boggling. Fair Oaks owns 19,000 acres of land—enough to accommodate 56,000 football fields. Its cows live in 10 barns (imagine airplane hangars), 3,000 per facility. Tended by a workforce of 400, they produce 250,000 gallons of milk per day—even without the stimulation of artificial hormones, which Fair Oaks eschews. Waste from the cows is processed in a state-of-the-art digester, producing enough methane to generate all the electricity the vast farm requires.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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