Written by Annie A-W
Last week, the Dairy Train staff (all five of them!) travelled several hours west to visit a dealer and start an inventory of the accumulated dairy equipment in his four buildings. After forty years in business, a good marriage, two kids, an incorporated partnership, and commercial success in that farm town, the dealer is thinking about retirement. “If I can’t make any more money staying in business than I can getting out, well…,” he said to us. The dealership’s assets include the buildings full of agitator paddles, barn cleaner chain, tank washers, vacuum pump motors, inflations and shells, about a hundred tanks of all different sizes and manufacturers, and a whole lot of stuff that – speaking for me – I had no idea how to identify and label. What I did understand was that there was history there.
This dealer got into business back in the day of the tie-stall and bucket milker. He stayed in business through the glass pipeline era (anybody need a weigh jar?), and through the change-over to stainless steel pipeline. He saw vacuum pumps get larger, smarter, and made with integrated oilers and variable speeds. The tanks he has on the store’s field range from 500 gallons to 1000 gallons, and from full circles with legs, to oval-shapes, to the flat-top that are easy to clean and finding their way into the maple syrup communities and wine making start-ups. The buildings were well-organized by category or type. All the agitator paddles, from a cut-off sphere on a stick to the whirly-gig and four-blade styles, were in one place, standing up out of blue barrels; the milk separators that really worked and weren’t just for flowers, were all in the center of the room; the shells – oh, the shells! – were in rows of buckets and bins and barrels, all by type: the Continentals, the Boumatic flare, the DeLaval lip, the dull Surge oldies.
I’m old enough to remember when the dairy farmer up the road, who hired me every summer to ride around on the hay wagon or take my turn loading the loft, would call us up if the electricity failed, and he had a couple of Pine Tree milker buckets handy, just in case. (Do you remember them? Check out http://www.surgemilker.com/history.html). I remember when a “big” farm was 200 cows, and when you raised your own young stock, and perhaps borrowed a bull for a week or two. I live now in western Wisconsin, and there are still some smallish farms, with “grandma houses” now sheltering the hired hands, milking twice a day. White-painted milk houses are attached to the ends of some barns. Calf huts line up in the side yard and a feed bin stands next to a working silo. In my neighborhood, too, are corporate farms with giant pole sheds and the smell of manure pits, and milk houses that have tank-docking facilities, so the milk goes from cow to cooler to the truck to the creamery, all in one morning. There’s not a cow in sight, they all live indoors!
I understand the need for cost-containment and efficiency, and I get the math of “Big is Best.” But the moms and pops are still out there bringing milk to the people. There are still dairy farmers with tie stalls using portable detachers, with small Jersey herds that give us butterfat using a specially sized claw. Where will they go for equipment and supplies when that dealer we visited goes out of business? Who’s got an elbow or the gasket, to repair the pipeline and re-configure it to the new trap? Where do you find the right bolt, the replacement timer, a filter sock, or a new tank-cleaning brush? Where do you find an inflation to fit that old shell that has served you well these last twenty-plus years? If the dealers all get old and retire, where will the dairy farmer go for parts and advice and a little jaw-wagging? That was not something we talked about as we sat around the table in the dealer’s front shop and ate the banana bread that his wife baked for us. We had just spent a large chunk of the day contemplating all that stuff, looking at and sorting through all those unlabeled but very important pieces of equipment. We knew that we were witnessing some sort of an ending.
The cows haven’t really changed, and neither has the business of dairy farming: you take care of The Girls and you sell your product to the company store. The “harvesting” equipment has changed – there are robotic milkers in my neighborhood – and the number of people who understand how the thing works, or how The Girls will like it, is shrinking. The dealers are retiring, the dairy farmers are getting old, and the milk check gets smaller in relation to the cost of the dairy barn set-up. Who will be there when your milking equipment breaks down – and The Girls are letting you know that they are unhappy? Only a small part of the answer is Dairy Train “bringing you new, used, and hard-to-find dairy equipment.” The other part of the answer is with you, in the dairy business. Dealer, farmer, hired hand or corporate manager, cheese-maker, milk-drinker: what’s going to happen to the business when the old world is irretrievably retired?
Annie is a member of the Dairy Train Staff. She is by trade a teacher who teaches as an adjunct at our local Technical College.