Life is so much a matter of contrasts. Last week I wrote about a large scale farmer of several thousand acres who drives his computer 9 hours a day while his brother and hired help to the actual farming. In stark contrast, shortly after I talked to him, an old friend stopped by to tell me that, after nearly forty years, he was retiring from small scale dairying. He tried to be upbeat about it but I could tell that he was sad too. He will keep on farming his 200 acres and maybe raise a few steers. Old dairymen never die, they just quit milking cows.
I’ve bragged in my writing over the years about Steve and Pat Gamby way more than they wish I would. Against all economic expertise, they have made a success of small-scale commercial farming and of life. They are very devoted to each other. They’ve raised three children anyone would be proud of. One of them, Rebecca, just finishing up college, happens to be an outstanding athlete also. She was playing last week with the USA national women’s softball team that would be our USA Olympic team if women’s softball was still in the Olympics. She played with and against the best softball players in the U.S. (actually in the world) and did all right for herself.
Her father did all right for himself in sports too, having played professional baseball in the minor leagues before he decided he’d rather stay home and milk cows. That’s how I got to know him. When I found out there was a former minor league ballplayer in our neighborhood, I courted him shamelessly for our softball team. He decided to play, against his better judgment, I think, because softball tournaments can play hob with a milking schedule. Oh, those were the days and I could tell you stories.
If there were an Olympic team for dairy farming, I’m fairly sure Steve and Pat would be on it. They have just done everything right by my idealistic standards— and they did not start out with inherited money either. As soon as the organic farming wave of interest started washing up on commercial agriculture’s shores, they were surfing it. That has meant, in addition to all the environmental advantages of good organic farming, that they have been getting considerably more for their organic milk than regular dairies get. While industrial farming boasts of corn prices in the $6 range and soybeans in the $14 range, organic corn and soybeans have been selling for almost twice that amount and Steve has some to sell now that he won’t be feeding a dairy herd. Oh, by the way, he seldom looks at computers. (He makes Pat do that.) He has rarely milked more about 40 cows, maybe 50 on occasion, but usually around 35. The experts at Ohio State, studying their computers, say that a herd that small is not profitable.
Now that Steve’s dairying is winding down, Pat’s lifetime interest is coming to the fore. She is a talented artist and has always been able to sell paintings of farm life when she could find time to paint them. Now she and Steve are building an attractive artist’s shop right there on the farm where she plans to devote more or less full time to her painting (when not going to Rebecca’s ballgames or baby-sitting grandchildren just across the fields). The fact that a farm can be the locus for many other small businesses and hobbies along with farming has always been one of its unsung but important advantages.
Actually, there are still lots of successful small dairy families and I just can’t believe that they will vanish before this latest wave of landed oligarchy and plutocracy run by computers. Plutocracy (feudalism is a better word for where big time farming is headed, as readers here have pointed out) always collapses and small enterprises continue to start up, right? Please tell me I am right.