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August 30, 2019

Battling odds, young Catlett man sticks with dairy farm

Photo/Don Del Rosso
Kraig Smith, 26, rents a 200-acre farm where he keeps 130 dairy cows, milking 65 of them.
I enjoy being around the cows, enjoy being in the fields. But, I’d say the last 12 months have been stressful.
— Dairy farmer Kraig Smith
Kraig William Smith
• Age: 26

• Home: Near Catlett

• Work: Dairy farmer, 2014-present

• Family: Parents, Kalvyn, 55, and Lisa, 51.

• Education: Virginia Tech, associate’s degree, agriculture technology, 2013; Liberty High School, 2011.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
Working 14-hour days, the young Catlett dairyman barely scratches out a living.

Debt, overhead, depressed milk prices and other factors make it difficult for Kraig Smith, 26, to cover his expenses.

For starters, Mr. Smith pays $2,000 per month to rent a 200-acre farm along Bristersburg Road that includes a milking parlor, cow barn, machine shed and a modest, two-story home, which he occupies.

To bankroll the dairy in 2014, he borrowed $230,000 through the USDA Farm Service Agency’s “Beginner Farmer” program to buy about 35 cows, a corn planter, tractor and feeding equipment. Retiring the loan requires the Fauquier native to make monthly payments of $2,400 for the next 10 years.

With a herd of about 130 cows, he milks 65.

Five years ago, when Mr. Smith launched the dairy, milk sold for as much as $28 per 100 pounds, he recalled.

Today, it goes for about $17 per 100 pounds, which he called roughly “the break-even point” for him.

“When the milk prices tanked, we kind of dug ourselves in a little hole,” Mr. Smith said. “And, we need a little bit more than we’re getting now to get ourselves out of the hole.”

If prices reach $20 per 100 pounds, “we’ll be doing good,” he added.

For now, revenue from the sale of soybeans helps keep the dairy afloat, offsetting anemic milk prices, Mr. Smith said.

“That’s where most of the income comes from” to provide his cows feed, Mr. Smith said.

He declined to say how much he clears.

“It pays for me to live,” Mr. Smith said. “Right now, that’s about it. But, I’d say the last 12 months have been stressful.”

When milk prices last year plummeted to $12, he considered quitting the dairy business.

“Everybody else was,” said Mr. Smith, who estimated he has invested $500,000 to $600,000 in the operation. “I can’t blame them. I don’t blame anybody selling out, with these milk prices.”

A “combination” of factors contribute to anemic milk prices, he said.

“There’s a little oversupply,” Mr. Smith explained. “Consumption of milk is down in general. There are new competitors (almond, oat and soy milk producers). And, the tariffs don’t help things.”

Transportation costs also have soared.

“Hauling our milk has doubled in the last three years,” from about 70 cents to $1.50 per 100 pounds, Mr. Smith said. “It’s been a big setback for us.”

Virginia dairy data paint a grim picture of the industry.

In 2006, the state had 782 dairies, producing 1.7 million pounds of milk, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In January, Virginia had 510 dairy farms, producing 1.6 million pounds, VDACS reported. That represents about a 7.5 percent decline.

In the last eight months, the agency reported that 40 dairies have shut statewide, an average of more than one per week.

In 2006, Fauquier had about 26 dairies, according to Jimmy Messick, who milks about 230 cows at his farm near Midland. Today, the county has 16 dairies.

In 2006, county dairies produced 61,734 pounds of milk. In 2018, production totaled 40,170, tumbling 35 percent in a dozen years.

“This is not just happening in Virginia,” VDACS Communications Director Elaine Lidholm said. “It’s really a national kind of phenomenon” because of the simultaneous decline in prices and increase in production costs. “The farmers are a getting a double hit sort of at each end.”

A labor shortage also has placed additional “pressure” on some farms, Ms. Lidholm said.

“The only bright places we’re seeing are the farmers who are deciding the only way they can stay in the business is to either diversify or to add to their product,” she said. “Sometimes, they do both” to create new income streams.

Increasingly, they incorporate corn mazes, petting zoos and pumpkin patches into their farms, Ms. Lidholm said.

“That way they’re not putting everything into one bottle called dairy.”

Others, make ice cream and sell it through retail outlets, said Ms. Lidholm, citing Remington’s Moo-Thru as a model example of the practice.

“He’s sort of the one who started this trend” in Virginia, she said of Fauquier dairyman and Moo-Thru owner Ken Smith — no relation to Kraig.

Fauquier Agricultural Extension Agent Tim Mize described state of dairy farming as “very precarious.” 

“It’s a very tight-margin operation,” Mr. Mize said. “Prices have been very bad, and so most farmers have been operating at a loss.”

Recent though small price increases may have improved farmers’ bottom line, he said.

But, the industry still faces significant challenges.

“It’s a lot of things,” he said. “Part of it is land availability. And, it’s not just having a place to put a (milking) parlor. You’ve got to grow crops. Pasture ground has become an issue.”

Increased traffic also poses problems because most Fauquier dairy farms “are pretty much located” in Southern Fauquier along the heavily travelled Route 28 corridor, Mr. Mize said.

“There’s a lot of pressure there that’s coming from urbanization.”

The Messick family has operated a dairy farm near Midland for 101 years.

Equipment, maintenance and labor costs can be “killers,” Mr. Messick said.

In more prosperous times, farmers could meet those obligations and still make a reasonable profit, he said.

“Back then — in 1980 — we were getting $17 (per 100 pounds of milk) and your largest tractor was $20,000 or $30,000,” Mr. Messick said. “Now your largest tractor costs $150,000, and the mechanic charges $100 an hour, not $15 an hour . . . . The numbers don’t work anymore.”

But, he believes dairy farmers can succeed if they carefully control spending.

“You’ve got to be sharp on it,” Mr. Messick said.

Mr. Smith, who has no paid labor, runs a tight ship.

His parents — Kalvyn, 55, and Lisa, 51 — and girlfriend, a Fauquier public school teacher, volunteer at the dairy farm.

“My parents are a huge help,” Mr. Smith said. “They’re here every day, and usually twice a day.”

He also makes do with two, 15-year-old pickup trucks.

“I don’t have the extra change to buy all this new equipment — not right now,” said Mr. Smith, smiling.

His family has deep agricultural roots in Fauquier. From the early 1950s to 2006, his grandfather, George Noland, operated a dairy at the 200-acre family farm along Old Dumfries Road just north of Catlett. Mr. Noland died in 2011 at age 74.

Mr. Smith’s parents keep about 30 head of beef cattle at the farm. A retired firefighter, Kalvyn Smith worked 32 years for Prince William County.

If all goes according to plan, Kraig Smith hopes to move his dairy to the family farm in about a year.

Because of his grandfather, Mr. Smith got an early taste of agriculture. And, through high school and during college breaks, he worked on other Fauquier farms. The experience made a big impression.

“It really just hit me,” he said. “I just enjoyed being around the cows every day. It’s a new challenge every day, a new challenge every crop year.”

Ultimately, Mr. Smith settled on dairy farming because, “I guess to try to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, I reckon.”

Despite the industry’s numerous challenges, he remains optimistic.

“I do believe they’ll be a market for the milk before too long.”

Contact Don Del Rosso at Don@FauquierNow.com or 540-270-0300. 
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rachellesmith · September 14, 2019 at 2:22 am
Dynamic dairy farm managers must screen and address different difficulties in the dairy industry to be effective. In the present dairy market, human resources and leadership abilities are similarly as essential to smooth
Write Me An Assignment activities as cow comfort and forage quality are to drain yield.
DonkeyFarmer · September 9, 2019 at 5:32 pm
Cammie Rodgers- Really, consider getting mental help for your Trump Derangement Syndrome. You are obsessed. Article about a local farmer and you turn it into a Trump bashing.
You must be a real hoot at a party.
Cammie Rodgers · September 6, 2019 at 5:56 pm
Where is ALL our taxpayer money GOING?? To the bailout for Farmers? Into the pockets of private corporations? Into Trump businesses? $300 million for him to go golfing?

"Trump’s border wall is (still) not being built.

President Trump has said some variation of “the wall is being built — it’s going up rapidly” more than 190 times since taking office. He doubled down again after the Defense Department announced it would be reprogramming $3.6 billion in funds Congress appropriated for military projects to fund 175 miles of fencing and barriers along the southern border.

Trump told reporters, “We’re building very large sections of wall. ... We’re building different sections simultaneously. And we think by the end of next year — which will be sometime right after the election, actually — but we think we’re going to have close to 500 miles of wall which will be complete.”

Except, that isn’t the case. So far, only 64 miles of new or replacement fencing have been built under this administration. Trump wants to build around 500 miles by the end of 2020, but only 110 to 165 miles of that would be new fencing or barriers where none existed before.

But that is still not Trump’s promised concrete wall. Plus, it only happens if he wins an ongoing court battle over whether he can redirect the funds Congress already appropriated.

All of that is a long way of saying: Despite what the president says or what you may have heard, the border wall has not been built. Replacement barriers and fencing, yes. The wall, no."
DonkeyFarmer · August 30, 2019 at 3:01 pm
Brandon - you sound like a condescending jerk when you ask "when are our dairy farmers going to realize cows didn't evolve to eat soy and corn?" As if these dairy farmers are a bunch of toothless hicks. I bet they have forgotten more than you know.

They are trying to make a living. They don't have the luxury of some botique sales of high priced milk. You say they are "not creative." You think you are the first guy to think up grass fed dairy cattle? It can't be done on a large scale and it can't be done profitably no matter how hard you wish.
Linda Ward · August 30, 2019 at 2:26 pm
My folks, my mom did all the milking from 1949-1986, worked 24/7 all those years for what? After signing the farm over to my older brother, who when killed in a farm accident in 1996, left everything to his children, with no provisions for my parents, they both died penniless in a nursing home.( (My brother's children sold the property for over $2 million as soon as they could legally do so.) It's a hard life yet good life for many, just make sure to have all the legal papers exactly how you want them when signing over anything to anyone, even family.

We don't drink that much milk, yet we buy as organic and local as possible.
brandonj · August 30, 2019 at 12:08 pm
Not so much stupid as not creative. Do you think I choose to drink healthy milk because it's a fad and I want to piss my money away then? In fact I do spend roughly $8.0/gallon on a cow share and I'm happy to do so knowing my children will have less exposure to the industrial food chain.

There's been a brain drain in farming for a century. To illustrate this point there's a reason many are saddled with debt and can't make a living without subsidies. I ask you (as a donkey farmer of course) who is the stupid farmer? The one that establishes a local working relationship with customers selling wholesome food or the one that 1. buys a combine 2. grain silos 3. pays for GMO seed 4. pays for roundup treatments 5. goes broke because he/she can't make the loan payments

I don't need to have any experience in farming to state facts.
DonkeyFarmer · August 30, 2019 at 11:44 am
brandonj- Do you think dairy farmers are stupid? They don't "realize" what cows eat? 4 and 5 generation dairy farmers have no idea what they are doing... They should do what brandon "wishes." You going to buy milk for $8.00 a gallon brandon? Or a cow eats some wild onion while grazing and ruins all the milk? Maybe you should be a consultant and show them how it's done.
brandonj · August 30, 2019 at 8:59 am
I wish more farmers would would manage a grass fed, hormone free herd. When are our dairy farmers going to realize cows didn't evolve to eat soy and corn?
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