The word he used was defeated.
Len was at the Stratford Dairy XPO eating his pancake breakfast. He was a dairy farmer who had travelled from Wisconsin with a friend to take in the show.
Since the seat across from him was free, and my hands held my own pancake-laden plate, I plunked down across from him. As farmers are wont to do when off the farm, we got to chatting about cows, countries and connection.
Len was very curious about the Canadian dairy industry, quota and land prices. He asked me how many empty farms were down my road.
“Well, none that I can think of,” I said.
His face had a very surprised expression which was explained by his revelation that most farms down his road were empty. Len said there would be one thriving farm, usually a large dairy, then several empty ones that used to be smaller dairies, or beef and pig farms. They either went bankrupt or were sold to the big farm down the road.
He seemed weary and admitted it was a depressing shift. Still dairy farming with three sons, the family milks 250 cows and has a “sort-of” quota process with the closest processor. It’s a solid contract and he was grateful, he said, but growth is impossible because the state is flooded with milk.
“I know of farmers who got the call that in 30 days, their milk would not be picked up any more,” said Len.
How shocking to get that kind of call! With an oversupply of milk, it would be unlikely the recipients of these calls would find a new buyer.
Then he told me dairy farmers ship their heifers to large lots in Kansas because it’s more cost-effective than raising heifers at home.
Also, that wealthy businessmen who grew up on farms are reliving their 4-H days by investing in cattle with top genomics. In effect, they are buying the best and profiting off science without actually being dairy farmers.
Well, all these tidbits of information only led to more questions and I don’t know how much is true, false or exaggerated.
What was real was the slump of his shoulders when I asked him how he felt being a dairy farmer in the U.S.
“Defeated,” he said. “I feel defeated.”
Now this was one man from one state at one point in his life. We all know life changes fast and if I happened to sit across from him next year, his word of choice might be completely different.
I hope so.
Dairy farming, heck, farming in general, requires too much heart and soul to head to the barn each morning feeling defeated.
This conversation was in stark contrast to one I had with Tamara McMullen of Firmly Rooted near Belgrave where micro-greens are grown for markets and restaurants.
The business has expanded and modernized yet Tamara’s hands are cracked and stained with dirt – proud evidence of a hard-working, hands-in-the-soil lifestyle.
She wouldn’t have it any other way and best of all, she is hopeful and excited about the work, her life purpose and the value of the crop she grows.
Tamara says she doesn’t expect to get rich but she commands a fair price for the value of her fresh salad greens...and she gets it.
This isn’t a column about the value of supply management versus the free market (so relax, Stephen Thompson) or the direction farming should go, though certainly the politics underlying salad greens are much simpler than marketing milk.
I’m just sharing two voices. One is an American producer of milk and feels defeated. The other is a Canadian entrepreneur growing salad greens who feels a real sense of life purpose and hopefulness about her future.
Does it say something about size? About location? About fresh versus stale markets? About being of an age to retire (Len) rather than beginnning like (Tamara). Or attitude?
The trappist monk Thomas Merton exhorted others to find meaning in an imperfect present moment. I think there is some applicable wisdom there. Maybe Len was searching for that by coming to a dairy-focussed event in Ontario.
I don’t know. Nor do I have a single, useful answer. Just an ever-present fascination with how people live, view and approach their life. The positive energy of a Tamara calls forth a similar hopefulness in others which can lead to success, I believe. Certainly, if the two options were hopeful versus defeated, who wouldn’t choose hopeful? ◊