How do small farms survive?

Editor’s note:  In order to enhance the reader experience, links to source material are now found in the headings of each section.

I’ve had to cringe every time I pick up a gallon of milk, lately. My grandparents were dairy farmers, and prices are historically low, right now. I’ve pieced together my grandparents’ story based on history, personal experience, and stories told by family members.

PA barn

A family history

During the Great Depression, my grandfather, Clarence Singer, took a job off the farm driving a truck that collected milk from area farms to be shipped to New York City. Fortunately, the family’s Wayne County, Pennsylvania farm was just the right distance from the important New York City market for the technology of the day. They produced much of what they ate on the farm, but they needed some cash for other things. My grandfather was also in a battle with depression of another type: he took it hard when his infant daughter, Isabelle, died in 1931.

Changing times

Depressed milk prices create razor-thin margins that favor the very largest operations. This is a fact of economic life.
According to a recent article in the Troy Daily News, “many dairy product corporations are switching to ‘one-stop and drop’ operations where milk comes from one large operation instead of several smaller farms filling a milk truck together.” In other words, this is the last nail in the coffin of the marketing strategy that sustained my grandparents.
Jeff Knoop, a Brown Township, Miami County, dairy farmer who plans to get out in 2019, told the paper, “For whatever reason, America says they don’t want factory farms. That’s simply what these guys (consumers, parentheses mine) are doing, they are creating the factory farms, even though the American people say they don’t want that, but that’s where it’s going,” Jeff said. “The smaller dairies like this and small family farms are gone. They are the first ones going out.” Farms like Jeff Knoop’s, which can accomodate no more than 64 milk-producing heifers at one time.




Many people understand the value of fresher, more local produce and getting to know their farmer, yet consumers greet low prices with enthusiasm. People have choices. Too often, they don’t understand the consequences of those choices, but they make them. If you’re in the minority when it comes to choosing, you can choose to be a sore loser, or you can move on, and make the best of it. Conversely, winners shouldn’t gloat. If you like, you can translate all that to: Shut up, internet trolls of all stripes. But perhaps I digress.

To reflect

Dianne Shoemaker, a field specialist and dairy production economics professor with The Ohio State University provided these statistics that accompany the above article, which you may access by clicking on the heading of the previous section: 85 Ohio dairy farms were lost in the last three months of 2018. That left 2045 dairy farms remaining.
Jaclyn Krymowski, an Ohio writer responding on the website AgDaily, provides the statistic that, in my grandparents’ state of Pennsylvania, there were 525,000 dairy cows in 2014, compared to 531,000 in 2018. She goes on to say, in an article entitled No, dairy farming isn’t dying, “To be fair, a part of me hurts very deeply for (small dairy farmers). In the perfect world, I’d love to see (a) 45-cow dairy could hold its own as well as a 4,500-cow one. Expand or stay the same, all farms would stay in business. But that is not the reality of the world we live in.” Farming is, after all, a business that needs to change with the market. However, there are ways for small farms to stay in business.


Direct to consumer marketing

Direct to consumer marketing allows farms to keep more of the money that a consumer pays for the final product. This is crucial to their survival as a business. There are no distributors, or other steps along the way, people who would ask for a portion of that payment in order to keep their own selves in business. For dairy farmers, costs of starting their own processing plant are prohibitive, as Ohio and all adjacent states except Pennsylvania prohibit the sale of most unpasteurized milk. But for farmers whose produce doesn’t present these issues, what does this strategy require? What my grandparents’ farm had in the 1930s, the correct proximity to the market. Also, what small farms in our area have.

10% shift

If you are someone who recognizes the value of small farms around here, consider the 10% Shift promoted by local non-profit coalition Green Umbrella. This is a pledge to spend 10% of your food dollar on local products, and with the growing season not far ahead, now is a perfect time to make this commitment. Find it by clicking on the heading above.

A description of the evolution of a family dairy farm as development encroaches, one that’s interesting and yet typical of the experience, can be found here. The farm is in Cumberland County, Pa.

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