It is getting to the point where I dread the last couple of weeks of each month. Several notices of cattle sales appear with our mail for farms closing both in Ontario and Quebec, some as far as three hours away and all hoping the cows will go to new homes and not the stockyards.
In recent months, the milk truck driver has arrived a few times with news of area farms closing the milk house door for good. The names usually shock us.
Although we felt that the number of farmers leaving the industry was bound to shrink back to only one or two a month, the numbers seem to be about 10. This year, 48 dairy farms closed their doors. Last year 89 called it quits, down from 112 the year before.
The decision to finally call it quits is unique to each farm: Illness; no next generation to take over, next generation has no desire to milk; operating costs rise, income drops; fear of the real impact of losing 20 % of our market to European and Pacific rim imports; the still-to-be ratified CUSMA; the closure of the bob calf market at local sales barns. There are other reasons as well.
Somehow, in every list of reasons, the ever-expanding proAction program, entering its third phase, biosecurity, is strongly featured. Stories of demands by inspectors for new cattle housing, major management changes, different bedding and, of course, more and more and more paperwork and red tape. ProAction is a major part of the decision for most. And the environment portion is next on the list. This supposedly great program for the Canadian dairy industry has chased more excellent dairy men out than anything I have ever heard of. And it isn’t just small farms exiting either, as many milking well over 100 cows have gone too. The truth is you can’t fight a thick rule book and a man with a long checklist.
When we bought our initial 18-acre farm on the 2nd Concession NSR (North Side of the Raisin River) in 1980, we found ourselves on the very west end of what I called “Dairy Drive.” Despite the road being only about 6 km from Johnson Road to Hwy 34, there were 11 dairy farms strung out along it: Van Baal, MacGregor, Flipsen, Anderson, Van Sleeuven, Smith, Cumming, Nysten, Kroll, Sangster and Gauthier. When we started shipping farm separated cream, switching to milk in 1989, we made it an even 12.
Everyone was at least second generation, except the Dutch farms . . . and they were working on it. We were the odd ones out. My husband was a third generation dairy farmer of French Canadian ancestry from two concessions north, preferring sweat equity and milking those small brown cows over bank loans. That gave everyone a good laugh.
Slowly, things started to change. First one farm closed, then another. By the time we moved from the Second Concession to our present farm on Johnson Road in 1994, five dairies had closed, one had changed hands twice and another split into two, leaving only seven. By the end of this month it will be down to six, with the local rumor mill claiming another plans to be gone by year’s end. Cash cropping has taken over, gobbling up the dairy land.
This trend is being observed in other provinces too. The powers that be must notice it but, I guess, as long as there are farmers looking to buy more quota than what is available each month, no one worries. And, in a worse-case scenario, there is always CUSMA and milk south of the border.
Where all this will stop, I have no idea. It won’t be just the very large left as there are still plenty of small and medium farms with tenacity and able to make a living and pay their bills milking cows. If no one at the Dairy Farmers of Ontario is afraid of losing their jobs to the Americans, then I guess the rest of us should have faith too.
Angela Dorie is an agricultural writer and a Jersey farmer near Cornwall.