A plot in the middle
A few years ago, things were going smoothly for Eric Neill and his family. Neill was making good money as a construction superintendent for a commercial contractor in Kansas City, traveling the country, running challenging job sites. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“I decided I wanted to be a farmer,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a farmer.”
So Neill and his wife, Julie Neill, met with an extension agent and asked how they could make a living with a farm.
That is a tall order.
The number of very small farms has increased rapidly in recent years. They are affordable to start, but don’t tend to support themselves. Very large farms are also on the rise as successful producers build super-efficient, mega-operations -- but it takes literally a fortune in land and equipment to get one going.
Medium-sized, self-sustaining family farms like the Neils were interested in building have declined dramatically. Between the big and little operations, it’s increasingly hard for mid-sized farms to compete.
“Ten years ago we 110,000 dairy producers, today we have about 65,000,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed out in a speech a couple years ago in Kansas City. “Everybody satisfied with that trend?”
Eric Neill wasn’t. He had seen the decimation of the family farm up close, born into one that folded in the farm crisis of the 1980s. Still, Neill decided to plunge in, to switch careers in his mid-40s, and make a go of it as a dairyman.
This was in 2008, and he figured many factors were in his favor.
“Milk prices were high. It rained a lot. Cows were relatively cheap. Corn was cheap,” he said.
Extension agents cautioned Neill to hedge this monumental bet.
“They told me not to quit your day job. They were dead serious,” he said.
But he quit anyway.
And that’s why today, Neill is a “grazing dairyman.” His 120 or so cows eat mostly grass, and they live outside on the gentle rolling pasture of Neill and Sons Dairy, south of Kansas City near Freeman, Mo.
“This is the cool part of being a grazing dairyman, being out here with your cows, and feeding them some new grass. I mean we grew the grass, we grew the cows, and tonight we’ll find out how we did, and then tomorrow morning the same thing,” he said. “It is a very satisfying job.”
It can be lucrative, too. Neill’s cows produce a lot less milk than their grain-fed, barn-housed, cousins in mega-dairies, but his costs are lower. As long his grass grows, he doesn’t have to buy much feed.
“It’s how to get started, because it doesn’t take as much money,” he said.
In the milk barn, Neill works fast and efficiently. He does this twice a day, every day, for 10 months of the year.
The faster he can get the milk out of these animals, the faster they can go back to eating grass and making more of it.
“When I’m really on my game, I can milk 100 cows in an hour.”
The work just about never stops around here, and the whole family has to chip in. Julie Neill looks back fondly on her life before agriculture.
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I mean, I had a really easy life,” she said.
Now, like most farm wives, Julie Neill has chores, lots of them. In the spring she nurses dozens and dozens of calves; mixing, hauling and feeding sometimes 80 gallons of formula a day. She cleans the barn, builds fences, and runs the house. She owns the farm and keeps the books. It can be a struggle to make them balance.
“We are proud. It is hard, and it’s stressful, but we’re very proud of what we do,” she said.
The Neils could trade on the fact that what they are doing is pretty old school and environmentally friendly, and market directly to people willing to a premium for “green” milk. But that would mean dealing directly with a lot of customers and employees.
“Managing people is hard, very stressful. And I don’t know that I have the personality to do it,” Eric Neill said. “I don’t mind managing cows.”
And while managing cows may once have seemed like hayseed work, nowadays family farming is pretty widely revered, he said.
Neill would like to entice at least one of his two boys to settle down on the farm, but he’s not sure the farming mystique will do it.
“When they’re here, they really don’t like being a dairy farmer that much,” he said “But when they get a mile from here, man, they are some dairy farmin’ dudes! They are dairy farmers to the core!”
He’s already scheming to sell their future girlfriends on the profound pleasures and virtues of farm life. For now though, he’s proud he’s just proud Neill and Sons Dairy is still in business.
“It’s not supposed to work. We’re supposed to be… a tourist attraction, instead of a viable business,” he said.
And Neill would like to see more people defying a 100-year trend, and stepping back into production agriculture. He’d be the first to tell you, though, that making it in this business takes planning, dedication, money, luck, and a lot of hard work.
Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, likeHarvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.