Two Sparrows Farm: The end of the road

By Whitney Belprez | March 15, 2018

Last week while on our monthly grocery trip, we were shocked to see that milk was selling for $1.50 a gallon at ALDI in Big Rapids.

$1.50.

Stripped former milk house. This room usually serves as the heart of the dairy farm – bulk tank, sinks, pipeline equipment, etc.

“Limit five,” the sign said.

Clearly, most shoppers’ reaction to these prices was to say “wow, $1.50!” and to then stock up.

For us, our hearts sank. Those farmers, their families, their cows. How in God’s name can they survive $1.50 a gallon?

This week, Dean Foods gave notice to 140 small family dairy farms in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio that after May 31 of this year, there will be no truck to pick up their milk. Walmart, the largest buyer of Dean’s milk in the region, has vertically integrated and will now be processing their own milk. But not from those farms. Those farms are too small for Walmart to waste their time with. And now, Dean has no avenue to sell those farms’ milk. After years of low prices, it is, likely, the final nail in the coffin for those farms.

These are the guys who are up at work at 5 AM feeding calves, milking cows, and cleaning barns. Then after breakfast, they don their ties and head into town for their 9-5 “day job” before coming home for evening chores and starting the routine all over again.

Silo & barn foundation – all that remains of this homestead

Truly, over 85% of farms can’t support a family, financially, without added outside income, according to recent USDA surveys.

What was once the most common job in America, now can’t even support a single family.

In a typical year, dairy farmers get only 11 cents from every dollar spent on milk.

From that 11 cents they have to pay for their mortgage, feed, fuel, labor, insurance, equipment, and any debts they have on those items. What’s left to actually feed the farmer’s family?

Stop by the average small farm in America during business hours and no one’s home. More often than not, the post-retirement-age-farmer, whose kids have all grown and left the farm for greener pastures in the city, is gone at work. Working to pay for his habit.

His habit? Farming.

his former farm sits on the edge of a tranquil creek in the woods. It’s easy to see why the original family chose this spot for their family.

A few days ago, we were running low on round bales for our cows – our next semi load wasn’t supposed to be in for a few more days. So, I thought I’d run down the road through Lakeview farm country and knock on doors at any of the small farms I saw with hay bales stacked up. Having recently moved to the area, buying hay is always a good way to connect with neighbors, local farmers and create community.

Not one person was home. The barn roofs sagged in the middle as the ridge beams rotted away. The tractors, mostly over 40 years old, sat rusting in barely standing equipment sheds. The old fence posts looked more like Woodpecker feeders, and the barbed wire fences that once controlled livestock now swung limply in wind. Paint peeled from the siding, and shingles were missing from the roofs, and no one was home.

Despite all their hard work, those farmers still couldn’t afford to make ends meet without a towny job. In a few more years, after that farmer has worked until his last day, those tractors will be wrapped in weeds, the barns will be piles of rotted wood and twisted nails, and the houses will sit vacant – too poorly maintained and outdated to even sell.

Empty tie-stall barn where cows lived & were milked at a local defunct farm

Eventually, some mega farm will come burn the collapsed barn, bulldoze the house, and try to squeeze out a few more bushels of corn over-top the tomb of some other farmer’s dreams, until they eventually succumb to the same fate.

I don’t say this to be pessimistic. It’s the truth.

The rot and decay in our food system has taken such a hold that, without drastic intervention, the industry will die.

What then?

According to the USDA the average age of the American farmer is 58, with over 31% still running their farm at over 65 years old. Anyone can see that the population demographics in agriculture are dreadful. It didn’t used to be this way. The idyllic farms pictured on the front of every Country Crock margarine container in the supermarket used to be real. Small, diversified, family farms were the backbone of America.

What happened? Who is to blame for the demise of an entire way of life? For the collapse of rural America?

The answer – the 1970’s. No, really. The 1970’s ushered in a radical change in the government policy surrounding agriculture and subsidies.

entrance to former dairy barn

Policy that interferes with the natural rules of supply and demand and encourages farmers to “get big or get out.” Moreover, our government farm subsidies prioritize the growing of commodities – non-perishable food products that can be stored indefinitely in grain-bins and traded on the world market to increase our nation’s GDP, thus giving the government more borrowing power to stem off its eventual debt-defaults from bloated budgets and out of control spending. The deeper you look, the farther the rot penetrates.

The farm of days gone by – of Old MacDonald with his diversified farm of edible crops, cows, pigs, and chickens – has been replaced with endless rows of corn and shiny-new grain bins that stick out of the countryside like cathedrals paying homage to holy corn.

But the rot has spread to these now, too. The price of a bushel of corn was $3.58 on Dec 2, 1974. In January of 2018, a bushel of corn sold for $3.56, down two cents from 44 years ago. The farmer who planted his first field of corn in 1974 can expect the same prices for his corn as he retires. All the while the price of seed, land, equipment, fertilizer, and fuel have grown exponentially.

It’s unbelievable. It’s an insult. It’s downright sinful.

Even now as I write, farmers are taking their planters out of winter storage, they are inoculating their seeds, calibrating the sprayers, and eagerly awaiting to get back out in the fields. Yet, the forecast for commodity futures on corn and soy don’t look any better than they did last year, and sadly, they will probably lose money after a year of work.

tractor forgotten in time

So, as the days get longer, and the sun comes out of it’s winter hibernation, take a ride down a country road and see the vacant houses, the barns falling down, the rows upon rows of corn and soy.

But, when you see that veggie stand on the side of the road, stop and buy something. Buy everything you can afford to locally.

Your dollar will have a greater impact when you buy anything directly from a local producer than switching to an organic item at a chain supermarket. Truly.

More and more farmers are finally starting to see the writing on the wall, and they’re trying to save themselves. They are returning to growing food instead of commodities, and more importantly they are marketing that food directly to customers, instead of selling it for pennies on the dollar to multinational packing and processing corporations.

Farmers are fiercely independent, and they are indoctrinated with the “pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps” mentality, but they can only partially save themselves. The consumer has to help save them.

Instead of Costco, spend your money at the farmer’s market. Or a buying club, or a co-op, or any farm. Buy your food direct from the farm as often as possible.

barn collapsed into a field of king corn

Not only is it better for your health, (and your taste buds!), it helps restore rural and local economies. The radical intervention that agriculture needs is here, and it’s to do away with the cheap global commodity food system that helps no one and fails everyone. Instead, opt for a vibrant, local, and sustainable food system built on the relationship between farmers and consumers, without the government and middlemen in the way.