The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

The Cows Are Out

The Cows Are OutThe Cows Are Out by Trudy Chambers Price is a good farm memoir to read on a rainy day.  The author, her husband, and their two sons spent 23 years on a moderate-sized dairy farm (25 to 75 Holsteins) in Maine.  The story itself is very engaging, aided by the frequent family photos and the author's pleasant style, but as Mom told me when she lent me the book, "It's the wrong kind of dairy farm!"

Mom was coming fresh from reading Folks, This Ain't Normal, so she was struck by the amount of time the Prices' cows spent in confinement on concrete floors.  From what I read, though, dairy cows are a whole 'nother ball game, and it takes a lot of extremely careful planning to raise them on pasture alone.  The Prices did have lots of grazing area they turned the cows into in the summer, and I suspect stockpiled winter grazing hadn't hit the forefront during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, so folks didn't have any other option than to feed their cows hay in the barn all winter.

While I'm willing to give the operation a pass on the confinement score, I do think it should be read as a cautionary tale about debt.  First the couple went into debt to buy the farm, then they went further into debt to purchase machinery (and yet more machinery as time wore on).  Two years after moving to the land, the author had to start teaching school to pay the bills, and it was clear that even after 23 years, they had yet to break even.

This cycle of debt is par for the course in mainstream American farming today, but I think it's also what drives the little guy out and turns our farmland over to mammoth agribusinesses.  In the Prices' shoes, I'd like to say that Mark and I would have thought outside the box and dreamed up value-added products so we could keep equipment purchases to a minimum and make a living wage, but it's hard to think straight if you're up at 3:30 every morning to do the milking.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free way to get off to a good start with your new flock this spring.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The area I grew up in was a dairy farming area. It is dairy no more. All the family farms went under in the mid to late 80s. Most were at around 80-200 head. The wave of farm auctions allowed serious land consolidation. The widows would sell everything off and move to town. The silent epidemic of suicide in farm country continues to this day, there is some funding for outreach. I have a family member who does some of that outreach and she is just shocked by how much struggle there is, debt is one of the biggest problems. Locked into seed and fertilizer contracts, equipment purchases etc. to compete with the big guys. Transitioning to something more sustainable is a struggle when you made a deal for a long-term contract because it was the "way to grow".
Comment by c. Fri Feb 1 10:28:59 2013

It is my impression that a lot of people in the US in general buy too much with borrowed money.

It seems that 70% of car purchases in the US involve a loan. Given that the value of a car depreciates by 11% the minute you drive off the dealer's parking lot, and another 15-25% year year for the first five years, you'd have to be crazy to loan money for a new car.

And the average cradit card debt for families having a credit card is a staggering $15800, with an average interest rate of 13%.

Comment by Roland_Smith Fri Feb 1 16:27:28 2013
Dairy is a very special case. Running a few head could be profitable except for the regulations which basically lock you out of selling except to "Big Milk" which then makes their money from processing. I think the pasteurization laws started with good intent, but very few people could set up a legal milk processing facility nowdays with cash. It's a shame.
Comment by Patrick Owen Fri Feb 1 19:28:45 2013

WI had 1000K dairy farms 50 yrs ago. Today there are 12K. Like any production endeavor, there's the economy of scale. Add to that the burden of needless regulations as mentioned above, and the small guy has trouble making a profit.

A homestead with an acre of decent pasture could support a single milk cow. Borrow a bull or AI each year and she'll produce plenty of milk for your non-commercial purposes. Keep the calf with her to do most of the work (and later provide you with beef) and you could just get the few gallons a week you need.

Comment by Sat Feb 2 07:32:29 2013

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