Farm family witnesses end of their dairy dreams

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Three generations of the Alexander family gather at the farm, from left, Jeff, Anna, Julie, Larry,  Adam and Andrew.

A Midwest farm family is slowly learning to adjust to a life that no longer revolves around the milking schedule of their dairy cows.

On a gray January morning, the Alexander family loaded their herd of cattle onto two cattle trailers bound for their new home at a farm 8 hours away in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, bringing to a close a chapter in the farm's history.

For over three decades, Jeff and Julie Alexander immersed themselves into the heart of agriculture on their rural Michigan operation — Na-Lar Farms, founded by Jeff's parents, Larry and Nadine Alexander.

Together the couple built a successful dairy herd with the help of their four children, Andrew, Adam, Jared and Anna while serving as advocates for their beloved industry.

Although the family has made countless sacrifices for their dairy farm over the years — sleepless nights while birthing calves or chasing loose heifers, making and stacking hay on hot summer days while their urban counterparts were enjoying the beach or swimming pool or missing a nuptial toast at a wedding because farm chores came first — Julie Alexander says she wouldn't change a thing, except for creating a level playing field where farm families can expect to make a living in exchange for their hard work.

Facebook post resonates

Alexander, who is a Representative in the Michigan State Legislature, poured out her feelings on her Facebook page soon after the cattle trucks disappeared down the road. Her post has resonated strongly with friends, family and strangers across Michigan and the Midwest.

Several of those posting on Alexander's Facebook wall recounted their own sadness of being forced to leave dairying.

"September, 5-9, 2015, were heartbreaking days for our family," wrote Lesa Elliot Clark. "I was a fifth-generation dairy farmer, my daughter was the sixth and my three grandchildren would have been the seventh."

Others lamented the demise of the small, family farms across America.

"Milk prices have been so low this past 12-18 months," posted Dawn Dean. "I fear you won't be the only ones to stop dairying."

William Mosher wrote that his family has operated a family farm in Jackson County, MI, since the 1850s.

"The last year has been particularly challenging. It's my opinion that we will regret losing the family farms to the huge corporate conglomerates."

"This outpouring of care and concern warmed our hearts. So many people had stories to tell of their parents or grandparents or vivid memories of their own family farm," said Alexander. "In my job I'm out in the community and experienced firsthand the outpouring of condolences and sadness felt by others. However, my husband, Jeff, is basically isolated out on the farm except for his inner circle of friends. And society's gradual move away from family farms really touches people's hearts and I wanted him to experience what I've experienced from other people. And social media proved to be a perfect venue for that."

Two cattle trailers filled with the Alexander family's milking herd get ready to pull out of the yard last month, signaling an end to the three generation farm's dairy heritage.

Alexander says the Legislature was in session the day the family's cows left and she felt terrible for not being there for Jeff, who says it was "brutally sad to see the cows looking out of the trailer."

"It would have been so hard to see a grown man cry," Alexander said with a catch in her voice.

Common tale

Just four short years ago, the Alexander's installed two robotic milk machines to service their 100-head operation. Today the family is looking to sell those machines.

Alexander says the family suffered along with other dairy farmers across the Midwest with low milk prices and rising input costs for the past two years, and when their oldest son, Andrew, made the announcement that he was leaving the farm, the time seemed right to sell the cows.

"We were lucky to get a decent price for our cows because they were accustomed to being milked by robots and had been bred for correct teat placement which is important when you're using robots," Alexander pointed out. "We're constantly hearing from auctioneers about more and more herds up for auction."

Michigan increased its milk production by over 3.5 percent in the last year even though the state didn't have the processing capacity to handle the overflow.

"New processing plants are in the works here in Michigan. However, these efforts were needed  years ago," Alexander said. "By the time the plants are up and running the face of our rural communities will have changed as the dairy producers are exiting at a rapid pace. When our herd was established in 1977, there were 120 dairy farms in Jackson County, now we have about a dozen left."

While the new processing plants may benefit the immediate area and provide local manufacturers some milk, Alexander says they need to look at the big picture and not just a few isolated areas.

Strong voice for ag

Out of 110 Representatives serving the citizens of Michigan, Alexander is the only lawmaker with a farm background. Her unique insight serves her well in her position as Vice Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Alexander is a reliable point of reference on matters impacting the state's agriculture industry. Her first call to action as a legislator was to bring realistic expectations of Grade A Milk Inspections, particularly those using Automatic Milking Systems (robotic).

"Suddenly one day, points were being deducted during out inspection because of the type of system we used," Alexander said. "This was really unfair and some producers were unable to ship milk because of it. As a legislator I now had a platform to grab people's attention."

The USDA is currently reviewing the policy, she said.

Julie Alexander and her family share their love of agriculture by inviting home school students to visit their farm last spring.

"I've always been active promoting our industry," she said, "now I do it at a different level and on a new platform."

Among the things farmers have little control over is the weather and the variables that determine the price they will receive for their commodities. To remain in profitable — or in some cases breaking even — farmers have had to adjust their business strategies to meet decreased demand and falling prices.

"If dairy farmer's incomes are not addressed, it will be doomsday for all the remaining dairymen regardless of their herd size — big or small — they won't make it," said Jeff Alexander.

Moving forward

In the meantime, the family will continue to farm 1,400 acres, producing corn, soybeans and wheat with the help of their sons, Jared and Adam. Although Andrew has chosen a different career path, the lessons learned back on the farm will serve him well.

"Growing up on a dairy farm shaped me into who I am today," Andrew said. "Not only has it cultured my work ethic, it has prepared me for the twists and turns life throws at  you and to relentlessly fight through it."

Jeff is not only settling into the mindset of being a crop farmer, he has also taken on the role as a seed salesman for Dairyland Seeds.

For the first time in 31 years, the Alexanders have to add milk to their grocery list.

"We've been blessed in so many ways," Alexander said. "Our sadness for this closed chapter will never take away the incredible memories we have created on our family farm."