Big Challenges for Small Dairy: Minnesota farmers seek creative solutions in the face of corporate competition

Dairy cows feeding // Photo courtesy Dairy Farmers of America

Dairy cows feeding // Photo courtesy Dairy Farmers of America

When I first rang Tom Portner to talk about his dairy farm Port-Haven, he told me to call back in a few minutes—he was in the middle of helping a cow give birth. The third in 24 hours, in fact.

“Yesterday I had 24 due, now three of them have calves,” he says when I call back, calf successfully delivered.

Port-Haven’s herd of approximately 250 Brown Swiss dairy cattle grows to around 270 in summer months, and Portner manages all the calving. Both numbers represent an immense growth from the herd of 30 he took over from his dad in 1992. Portner and his wife, Mary, run the Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, farm together and hope to eventually pass it on to one of their five daughters, two of whom have degrees in dairy science.

“We don’t know for sure if they’re coming back or not, but that is a possibility,” he says. “[We’re] trying to figure out a situation where they can come back and take over the operation.”

Port-Haven is one of 3,210 licensed dairy farms in Minnesota, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And Minnesota is the eighth-largest dairy-producing state in the country. Where a herd of more than 200 cattle, such as Port-Haven’s, once constituted a “big dairy,” some farms today are comprised of as many as 10,000. This leads to a very particular problem.

“It’s a new world out there where there’s too much milk,” Portner says.

Port-Haven is a member of the co-op Dairy Farmers of America, which markets milk for over 13,000 dairy farmers around the country. DFA Senior Vice President John Wilson confirmed the industry is experiencing an oversaturation of milk—the outcome of several factors. Consolidated farms, with more efficient, more productive processes, are major contributors. Global changes affect U.S. dairy farmers as well: In 2015, the European Union eliminated quotas on milk production, prompting a rise in output.

And while more milk translates to more competition, processing plants are also struggling to keep up with the increase in raw product.

“Producers have got every right to increase the number of cows and get more milk per cow, and all that adds up to more growth,” Wilson says. “But we really haven’t had a significant amount of plant capacity increase.”

The co-op guarantees its members a home for its milk, and is currently exploring the construction of a new cheese plant in Michigan. It can’t, however, control rising production costs or expenses such as health insurance, which cut into already tight margins. Instead, DFA offers various offsetting measures, such as discounted equipment and financing, but it is up to members to opt into these services. Some dairies practice direct-to-consumer sales in order to generate more revenue, but Portner says this tactic is only really viable for farms in close proximity to high-density areas. Product diversification, such as cheese production, is another option Portner has considered, but such ventures require access to specialty farmers—and the resources to support them—that he doesn’t have.

Cheesemaker Lynne Reeck can testify to the role skilled farmers play in running a successful operation. She’s the owner of the nine-year-old micro dairy Singing Hills in Nerstrand, Minnesota, which produces around 150 pounds of fresh and aged chevre a week, sold at farmers’ markets and CSAs across the state. She lost a key worker this past year, and explained that being one farmer down can have serious consequences in an industry where each individual shoulders numerous responsibilities.

“If someone gets sick, it puts a tremendous amount of stress on the farm,” Reeck says. “Most family farms are pretty dependent on all family members being all systems go.”

A selection of cheeses at Surdyk's Liquor & Cheese Shop // Photo by Kevin Kramer

A selection of cheeses at Surdyk’s Liquor & Cheese Shop // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Another reason each pair of hands is crucial: the proliferation of farmers’ markets. The number of markets has increased, but their patrons haven’t—they’re just more spread out.

“It’s become a much less efficient mode to move product,” Reeck says. “You have to attend a lot more farmers’ markets to sell the same amount.”

Efficiency is the hallmark of big dairy, with its promise of streamlined production and delivery. But Reeck says prioritizing efficiency is detrimental not only to smaller dairies, but to the economy as a whole, especially in rural communities.

“If your metric is efficiency, we don’t look at animal quality, the importance of the economy, [or] how it helps the country as a whole,” she says.

Portner echoes this perspective, pointing out the numerous ways that dairy farms impact their surrounding environment, from canola oil byproducts in cow feed to cow manure fueling golf courses and landscapers. Port-Haven even incorporates waste from local breweries into their cows’ feed, and Portner actively seeks to educate the public through such efforts as inviting kindergarten groups to visit the farm. This gives people the chance to see where the milk they drink gets produced, leading to deeper connections with potential future customers.

Reeck also points to education as a tool for sustaining small dairies, which are becoming increasingly difficult to support without supplemental revenue streams. They need to give the public a reason to support them.

“There’s so much that has to be taught and educated, and I think that piece—the education piece—everybody has to do it,” Reeck says. “There’s so much that people don’t know, and yet they depend on food every single day.”

When asked whether the farm-to-table movement has made an impact on her bottom line, Reeck says she hasn’t seen a significant change. She supplies the Curious Goat food truck, currently in residence at Modist Brewing, with cheese, and says while they’ve been incredibly supportive of local farms, conversations with food truck’s owner made it apparent to Reeck that it’s difficult to both educate diners and to feed them.

“I’m not sure if people at restaurants ask very many questions,” she says. “They just trust that the people are doing what they say they’re doing.”

Still, support from chefs, local organizations, and the industry itself can all make a difference, she says, noting that General Mills recently hosted a discussion championing the importance of healthy soil for growing robust crops and reducing the cost of food production. Reeck holds the same priority for her farm, which used to grow vegetables. “The land itself is rolling land—hence Singing Hills—and it’s not really suited for crop farming,” she says. “The animals are perfect for it. The land seems a lot happier to me.”

The significance of animal and land welfare, and the role of the farmer as a steward of both, is crucial to the success of small dairies in Minnesota. It is also an area in which big dairy cannot compete. And while the idea that passion alone can sustain farms is haplessly romantic and impractical, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that the ingenuity sparked by a farmer’s loyalty to the land and their animals can—and does—lead to sustainable solutions, whether by finding unusual buyers for their products, such as food trucks, or by partnering with other farms to secure animal feed.

“Dairy farmers are the hardest working people in the world as far as I’m concerned,” says DFA’s Wilson.

It’s hard to disagree, especially knowing that Portner, once he hung up the phone, had 21 more calves to deliver.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Curious Goat’s priority was feeding people, not educating them. The sentence has been clarified to more accurately explain Lynne Reeck’s point that feeding and educating diners is difficult.