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Published April 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Barnesville farmers grapple with tough decisions on horizon

BARNESVILLE, Minn. – Jake Thompson has been milking cows since he was a boy. The 26-year-old Barnesville farmer would love to continue milking them for the rest of his working life. That’s probably not going to happen.

By: Jon Knutson, The Forum

BARNESVILLE, Minn. – Jake Thompson has been milking cows since he was a boy.

The 26-year-old Barnesville farmer would love to continue milking them for the rest of his working life.

That’s probably not going to happen.

“You look at the way things are going in dairy, and you have to wonder how much longer we’ll keep going,” said Thompson, a third-generation farmer.

He and his 23-year-old brother Nate run Four Hill Farms in the gentle hills east of Barnesville.

The farm is a throwback to the small diversified family farms once commonplace in the region.

The Thompsons milk 40 cows, keep 50 beef cow-calf pairs, and raise wheat, corn, soybeans, sugar beets and alfalfa on 1,500 acres.

Farms like that are becoming an endangered species.

Minnesota has lost about 72 percent of its dairy farms in the past 20 years, with small operations accounting for most of the losses.

Jacob Thompson, primarily responsible for the dairy side of the family farm, understands that as well as anyone.

“Those big dairy operations – each with 500 or more dairy cows – they’re so specialized and efficient,” he said.

The Thompsons’ dairy operation is profitable, at least for now.

They receive about 18 cents per pound for their milk, which costs them about 15 cents to 16 cents per pound to produce.

But their 26-year-old milking facilities are aging, and eventually must be replaced.

“That would be pretty expensive. It might just not make sense financially (to build new facilities),” said Thompson, who graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in animal sciences.

Labor is another concern.

Cami Thompson, Jacob and Nathan’s sister, helps out regularly with the dairy cows. But she graduates from high school this spring.

“So that’s another change we’ll have to deal with,” Jacob Thompson said.

The actual twice-daily milkings are automated; even small operators don’t milk by hand anymore. But plenty of time-consuming duties such as feeding the cows and cleaning out stalls remain.

With or without dairy cows, the family farm will keep going, Thompson said.

But he hopes milking remains a part of its future.

On a recent spring morning, he finished the first of the day’s two milkings and stepped outside the barn.

The air was dry, warm and calm. The newly risen sun shone in a clear sky.

Thompson smiled and said, “I can’t think of a better way to spend the morning.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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