Moo-ving through the decades: New England's Doe Dairy celebrates 70 years in business
June is National Dairy Month. The Dickinson Press toured a local dairy farm and learned firsthand about the challenges dairy farmers face in southwest North Dakota.
NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — There is an old adage in dairy farming that says, "If you want to have a bank account with a million dollars in it, start with 2 million." The days of small dairy farms dotting the landscape, forming the backbone of local economic prosperity, and operated by dairy farmers who know all 50 of their cows by name is dying.
Rural dairy farmers are seeing ever fewer local products on restaurant tables, a declining local market for milk and the rising costs of getting by. Ultimately, many longtime dairy farms have made the painful decision to close their doors for good — and with it a legacy of the Midwest in the process.
In the rolling grassland prairies of southwestern North Dakota, about 12 miles south of New England, there is a dairy farm that hasn't become another statistic in an annual state report.
Doe Dairy is a family run business that’s been in operation for about 70 years. Run by Warren and Gail Doe, and their children Ariann and Korey. Even the grandchildren help out.
Warren Doe said that over the course of those seven decades, he’s sold to five different North Dakota dairy processors — each of which has gone under. The last of them was Dakota Country Cheese in Mandan, which closed its doors in 2010. Now, they sell to a cooperative called Dairy Farmers of America (DFA).
His daughter Ariann Doe said that each of their 300 cows produces approximately 50 to 60 gallons of milk daily. They dump around 500 to 1,000 pounds of milk per day, equating to 63 to 125 gallons — with each gallon weighing eight pounds. Why? Limited storage capacity and bureaucratic red-tape stipulations that restricts storage of raw milk for more than four days.
“When the trucking company goes, ‘Oh, well you have to buy a bigger tank.’ That’s no small feat. Well, why don’t you buy a bigger truck, or another truck?” she said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the direct sale of raw milk is permitted in either retail stores, farmers markets, on a farm or all three in approximately half of U.S. states. Ariann noted that North Dakota is not one of them, but pointed out that cow sharing agreements that allocate a certain share of the raw milk are allowed — noting that these are a niche phenomenon.
Even if raw milk sales were legal in North Dakota, Warren said he would be apprehensive about it in this day in age.
“What we dump in a day would easily take care of the town of New England,” he said. “But you’d be setting yourself up for all kinds of liability issues. If somebody got sick, they’d be hiring the best lawyers and coming after you.”
Currently, the Doe farm has the capacity to hold approximately 7,300 gallons of milk at any given time, with two 1,000 gallon tanks and another that holds 5,300. Warren said he hopes to purchase his semi-truck so they can cut costs and boost efficiency by hauling the milk to the processor themselves.
‘Leave us alone’
Warren and Ariann said another aspect that makes their jobs harder are what they described as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's overbearing and myriad of regulations. One she pointed to as an example is intended to prevent water from getting into the milk.
“That's one thing they've been on our case about," she said. "Sometimes it’s just stupid little petty things we deal with. It’s like, our pipeline is clean, our tank is clean, our milk samples are clean. So leave us alone.”
Warren said that much of the scrutiny specifically regarding water contamination of milk is an unnecessary additional task because the DFA already conducts water testing through freeze tests.
“If there’s water in your milk, it’ll freeze faster than pure milk. So they have a test and we always have a good freeze point,” Warren said. “They know this. They don’t need to be writing us up for such small amounts of water in jars.”
Another point of contention is a rule forbidding cats and dogs in the milking facilities, which on its surface sounds like a reasonable requirement. However, Warren notes that the cats on the property are there to assist with complying with another regulation concerning the no mice rule.
With 300 cows moving in and out of the building twice daily, he said it’s nearly impossible to keep the walls clean considering that it can take upwards of three hours to clean following each milking. Yet inspectors are known for citing farmers for dirty walls during surprise inspections, even though the walls are several feet away from the milking area.
“That’s my biggest issue because one time through, they kick up so much," Warren said of the realities of cattle in enclosed spaces. "It’s not affecting what goes into that jar and that’s not even close. So that’s another ridiculous one."
According to Warren, dairy farmers don’t get the same level of government support as corn and soybean farmers, whose crop insurance is fully subsidized by the federal taxpayer.
“You can take dairy margin insurance, which I have taken in the past, but you pay for it,” he said, explaining that if feed costs reach a level sufficiently disproportionate to milk prices the insurance makes up the difference. “I’m a grain farmer too so we get subsidized for that… But there’s not much help for dairy farmers.”
Warren noted that the frigid North Dakota winters can make for especially trying times.
“You have to keep the cows locked up so their utters don’t freeze. That’s a challenge when it’s 20 below, and that can happen for quite a few weeks on end,” Warren said.
One of the controversial and growing trends in the dairy industry are major corporate dairy operations, something that Warren said he wasn't opposed to.
“I would love to see a big corporate dairy in North Dakota. It would only help us because that might bring an equipment supplier in,” he said.
Much of the Doe Dairy equipment are bygones of a yesteryear, products of dairy operations that closed shop. About 10 years ago, Warren and his wife Gail drove their Suburban to Louisville, Kentucky, to pick up glass milking jars because they were too fragile to ship.
The Doe family stays busy. Gail owned and operated a beauty shop in New England for more than 25 years. At 46 years old, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, and also had to have part of her lung removed — adding financial strains on a family tied to their farm. Despite the challenges, and years later, she says still enjoys milking cows every day.
“I had a really good doctor in Fargo. They did nine different surgeries,” she said. “I think I’m pretty tough.”
What started as a small Midwest venture, when Warren’s parents Earl and Arlene bought the farm from their parents in 1952, has grown from the 12 dairy cows operation with scattered beef and sheep into a farm that highlights the American Midwest spirit of hard work, toughness and a bit of neighborly love.
Talking about his mother, Arlene, Warren said she was involved in the process through a majority of her 70s.
“I think she milked cows until she was about 75 years old. I kind of had to kick her out. I was worried she might fall going down the steps,” he said. “She was kind of upset but she got over it.”
Ariann, like Arlene, says that overall, she loves what she does and wouldn't change it for anything.
"I always say to people, it's not a job. It's a lifestyle," she said. "There's days where we hate it or get frustrated. But then you have days where it's like, 'Well I'm glad I'm not working at Walmart, or I'm glad I don't have to go work in an office job."