Despite hard times, dairyman wants to 'tough it out'
GREENEVILLE, TN (AP) - In 1931, Herbert Hoover occupied the White House.
Winston Churchill was in the midst of political exile in Britain, and in Germany, Adolf Hitler did not yet hold office.
In Greene County, meanwhile, Ray Seaton began working on his father's dairy farm in Debusk.
Seaton, who's quick to tell you he's 93 — even though he doesn't turn 93 until August — still sits in on the twice-a-day milkings of the 50 cows on his family farm.
It's not his weathered and bent hands doing the milking, though. That task goes to his grandson, Ben, 21.
Much about the world has changed since 1931, including the dairy industry in Greene County — and across East Tennessee.
Ben Seaton represents the fourth generation of his family to work the dairy farm on Debusk Road, putting in time with his father, Frankie, and four brothers there. He can't imagine doing anything else.
"It just gets in your blood," Seaton said. "I'm the fourth generation."
His grandfather, Ray, remembers when it was easy to make a living in dairy, when Pet Milk kept thousands of cows across Greene County busy.
"It's hard times on the farm," Ray said of today's conditions. "They raise the price of stuff the farmer has to buy, and the stuff he sells they lower."
The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census reveals that tens of thousands of cows still can be found in Greene County: 70,000 total, according to figures released May 15. Of that, 3,100 are listed as milk cows, while 34,000 are classified as beef cows.
In each of those categories, Greene County leads the entire state.
But the USDA Farm Service reported to The Greeneville Sun earlier this year that there are only about 35 working dairy farms in Greene County. That's a far cry from the heyday of Greene County dairying, when nearly every farm in the county was supplying at least some milk to the Greeneville Pet Milk plant, which closed in the 1990s.
But outside the number of dairy farmers, perhaps the most important number for each dairyman is how much money he gets per 100 pounds of milk.
Any dairyman who wants to keep afloat now must know how to economize and achieve peak efficiency. As the cost to do business goes up, the price dairymen at operations like the Seatons' can fetch for each 100 pounds of milk has been dropping.
Mike Combs, who runs a 100-cow dairy off the Warrensburg Road, just sold a load of milk to his broker for $17.60 for 100 pounds of raw milk. But both Combs and the Seatons were told by Piedmont Milk to expect about $17 per 100 pounds for the next pay out.
For Combs, whose 102 cows are each putting out about 65 pounds of milk per day, that $1 off the price of 100 pound adds up to several thousand dollars of lost income per month. "In my situation, $18 (per 100 pounds) is break-even, Combs said. "I really have to be on a tight rope there."
The Ottinger family, which runs a 60-cow operation in the Caney Branch community, told the Sun in March that milk pay-outs were about $19.50 per 100 pounds at the time. In 2014, dairymen were getting as much as $28 per 100 pounds, according to Seaton.
According to Combs, the system for buying and selling milk favors large, commercial dairies in the northern U.S. that have thousands of cows.
A milk buyer in Nashville, for example, recently told him that it can get a truckload of raw milk — about 48,000 pounds — from Ohio when it's just eight hours old, whereas getting the same amount of milk from Combs would take several days. The difference is that on Combs' small, family-run dairy, he just doesn't have the output to fill up a whole tractor-trailer of milk that quickly.
"That's causing a problem with us," Combs said. "It's coming to commercial. Commercial is what's doing it to us."
Seaton is also bracing for losses, due to the decline in milk prices, which he says is tied to overall demand. The high — and fast — output by commercial dairies supplies milk brokers and co-ops with plenty of product, which leads to the depressed prices for dairies like those found in Greene County.
"They say it's too much milk— that big dairies keep getting bigger," Ben Seaton said. "We can't compete with them."
Greene County UT Extension Director Milton Orr acknowledges the fact that the future for dairy look less bright than it did a generation or two ago, but he hasn't written it off as a viable sector of agriculture.
"I think we will reach a point to where — when we start looking at these cooperatives buying milk — they're going to reach a point where the margin between 'needs' and 'surplus' gets closer together," Orr said. "They're going to make some changes to widen that back out. The buyers are pretty savvy about this stuff."
He doesn't think the price of milk will reach a point to push all small dairymen out of business.
"The future doesn't look nearly as good as it used to," he said. "But there is a future in it."
Orr, in his capacity as director with the Extension office but also as a beef cattle farmer himself, encourages all farmers — dairy and otherwise — to learn as much about the inputs of their businesses as possible so that they can find as many ways to maximize their efficiency.
"The farmer can't really drive the price of milk that much," he said. "I think a lot of the issue is, we tend to act out of emotion instead of sitting down and really knowing the true cost of producing our product and looking at where we can make changes."
Orr often points to the benefits of technology — everything from letting computer models help farmers know more about their animals to the role genetics plays. In a recent interview, he pointed to Greene County agriculture statistics he recently unearthed.
From 1939 to 1959, the number of milk cows in the county went from 16,900 to 27,500. But the amount of milk produced in Greene County in 1959 was the same amount produced here in 2007 — when the number of milk cows had been slashed to about 5,000.
"We're doing it on the same infrastructure," Orr said. "What have we changed? We've changed genetics."
The cows at both the Seaton and the Combs farms have been genetically engineered to produce as much milk as possible. Ben Seaton has been overseeing the breeding operations at his farm and takes pride in how his cows produce.
It's outside-the-box thinking — such as paying close attention to the field of genetics — that Orr says can help dairy farmer — and any other livestock or produce farmer. "You can't make good decisions about anything until you know everything you can possibly know about your business," he said.
Still, for dairymen like Combs — who wanted to pass his business down to his own son after taking it over from his father — the future looks bleak. He says now, in terms of the price he's getting for milk, about every five years is a good financial year. Mixed in those chunks are one or two average years and one or two bad years, which is how he describes 2017.
Ray Seaton agreed. "It'll get better," he said.
But it's difficult for Combs to look at up-and-comers like his son, Nicholas, 36, or Ben Seaton, who want to put in the hard, 15-hour days of a dairyman and who love the work, and tell them to keep pursuing dairy.
"You've got guys like that who are young and work — they don't mind the work. I just think it's tough," Combs said about their financial prospects. "I don't know what can be done about it."
Ben Seaton often asks Combs for advice on dairying.
"I just stand and look at him, because you don't know what to say," Combs said. "How do you encourage somebody when you're wondering yourself?"
But Ben Seaton can't see himself doing anything else. He and his father have diversified their operation to try to weather dropping milk prices. They grow 3.5 acres of tobacco and have about 70 head of beef cattle. Ben says men like his father are tied to the fortunes of their farms, no matter what.
"It's too late for him," he said. "I can go out and get a job."
But he doesn't want to — and he doesn't think he will. Despite the economics, on the farm is where he wants to be.
"It's a hard living," he said. "If you can make a living, it's a good way to make a living. We have good times and bad times. And we're in the middle of a bad time. I'm just going to try to hang in there and tough it out."