Dairyman's dream: 'little guys' will hang on

Dairy farmer Bert Henderson decided 10 years ago that he wanted to retire. Mr. Henderson and his wife, Zelpha, have been trying to find someone to take over their farm here in northeast Iowa ever since.

First their neighbor's son worked for three years, but chose not to buy in. The neighbor's brother later came on for seven years, purchasing half of their cows.

But when it came time to take over, he didn't commit.

"He was scared to take on our debt," says Henderson. "I bought [the] cows back and he went for a job in town."

Dairies carry the same primary liability as grain farms: They are economically risky. According to the Agriculture Department, the number of dairy operations in the US has decreased more than 40 percent since 1991.

The Hendersons needed 20 years to pay back loans on their 380 acres of land. And they still incur debt when they need new machinery or start building projects.

But with low milk prices, their ambitions have ebbed slightly. In 1983, the Hendersons earned $13 per 100 lbs. of milk. Inflation has hiked prices on machinery, feed, and fertilizer. But the price they can charge for milk has remained static because of overproduction in the Midwest.

The Hendersons' independent operation is becoming a novelty in the dairy industry. Larger operations are hiring teams of outside help to milk three times a day to help boost small profit margins.

"It's tough competing with the bigger dairies," says Henderson. "The small guys are quitting and getting bought out."

Dairies are also notorious for a lifestyle that more befits the early 20th century, when work almost entirely defined the rhythms of daily life.

Henderson started farming in 1963. Since then, he has been responsible for milking his 55 Holstein cows two times a day, every day.

He has gone multiple periods of three years at a time without missing a single milking.

It's this grueling commitment that has driven away their two children. Like the offspring of many farmers, they are industrious and well educated. Their son is an engineer and their daughter is in medical school.

Mrs. Henderson doesn't blame her children for leaving. She believes the continuity of family farming was interrupted not only in Cleremont, but across the Midwest, while her children were going through school.

She says they became more involved in after-school activities than previous generations, and didn't cherish the farm life like she and Bert.

"To us, it was always fun to work. It's not fun for them," she says. "Always the work came first. The cattle always got fed first."

But they believe there are many young farmers still wanting to make the commitment. It's why Bert called Iowa State University's Farm On program.

"I wanted to help somebody else get started. This is the third time I've tried," he says.

Bert chose 20-year-old Zack Miller from nearby Cleremont. He's been with the couple since March.

Mr. Miller works well with cows, the Hendersons say, but they are uncertain whether he's mature enough to handle the operation over the long term.

"He jumps into things without research," says Bert. "You have to take it slow. He wants to revolutionize the operation."

Bad spring weather has boosted milk prices a bit, but Bert admits it might take a mini revolution for dairy farming to again become financially secure.

Efforts in New England to preserve independent dairies, for example, have largely failed. The recent Farm Bill passed by Congress includes no provision to continue the dairy compact there, which aimed to raise regional dairy prices by shutting out competition.

Sixty-four dairy farms have gone out of business in the three years of the compact's existence, while only 57 collapsed in the previous three years. Most experts agree, however, some government effort is necessary to keep smaller dairies afloat.

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