Author: Allen Williams PhD
In the first half of the 1900’s Oktibbeha County, Mississippi had more than 800 small dairy farms. The large number of dairy farms earned the county the nickname of “Little Wisconsin.” These farms were using smaller breeds, like the Jersey and Guernsey, and the herds were primarily grazing.
The climate at that time was very favorable for abundant grazing and the rural economy was thriving with bustling towns and communities scattered across the county. These farms supported multiple creameries, allied businesses, retail businesses in adjacent towns (cafes, retail stores, etc.)—and the farms fully supported several hundred families.
Most dairies were milking 20-50 cows, but they had extensive gardens, chickens, pigs, and other forms of revenue on their farms. They were far more diverse than the average farm of today. Railroads passed through many of the rural communities allowing for easy export of some agricultural products to other areas.
The call to “modernize and industrialize”
Starting in the early 1960’s, the USDA and the Land Grant Universities started telling these farmers they were doing it all wrong—that they needed to “get with the times” and modernize. The “experts” convinced farmers they should switch their herd genetics to the much larger Holstein so they could produce far more milk per individual cow, all in the name of efficiency.
Grazing was “inefficient,” so farmers were told by the experts to put their cows in barns, plant crops in their pastures and bring the feed to the cows. To do that farmers had to build large barns to house their cows and then build expensive milking parlors in which to milk them. In addition, the farmers were encouraged to put up silos and Harvestores to store all the silage they had to produce to feed back to the cows in the barns.
Cultivating a culture of debt and competition
This modernization of the dairy farms created a new level of debt never before experienced by these small farmers. They were told that they had to “feed the world” and that much higher levels of production was the only way to accomplish that task. They spent money to build all the new infrastructure, to purchase equipment needed to plow under their pastures and plant crops, and spent even more money on seed, fertilizer, chemicals—expenses previously not needed.
All of this created a scenario of competition among these farmers and their sense of community and collaboration started to erode. Each thought they had to now out-produce the other. In their quest to “get larger,” the more successful farms started leasing and buying up all the available land and forcing the smaller ones out of business.
Is all this starting to sound like agriculture in general across the U.S.?
The death of dairies and rural communities
Fast forward to Oktibbeha County today, which also happens to be the home of Mississippi’s Land Grant University, Mississippi State University. This county now only has one operating dairy farm. Ironically, that farm belongs to MSU, which serves as the research dairy farm for the state of Mississippi.
All the private, family owned dairies have gone out of business and those tall, blue silos built in pursuit of “efficiency” all mark “dead” dairy farms. It’s why we call Harvestore silos “Blue Tombstones.” The once-thriving rural towns and communities that benefited from those dairies are also dead or dying. What remains are mostly boarded up or bedroom communities for the larger cities in the area.
The inhabitants of these rural areas now must drive into in to Starkville (home of MSU), Columbus, or West Point, to find gainful employment. You can count on one hand the number of people who actually make their full time living from their farms.
Reversing the trend through regeneration
The story of Oktibbeha County is a microcosm of rural America today. It’s a sad, painful story but we reverse this trend. However, it will first take a transformation of the mind because you cannot put into practice what you first cannot conceive.
The good news is there are numerous case studies demonstrating how we can reverse these dire trends and restore true farm profitability and viability. Upcoming columns in this series will explore these case studies and what we can learn from them to ensure the future of farming and the vitality of rural America.
About the author
Allen Williams, Ph.D is a 6th generation family farmer and founding partner of Grass Fed Beef, LLC, Understanding Ag, the Soil Health Academy, Grass Fed Insights, LLC, and is a partner in Joyce Farms, Inc. Williams pioneered many of the early adaptive grazing protocols and forage finishing techniques and has spent the last 15 years refining those. He is featured in the Carbon Nation films, Soil Carbon Cowboys, Soil Carbon Curious, and Givers & Takers, and has a recently released book, Before You Have A Cow, co-authored with Teddy Gentry.