When you’re heading south on state Route 117 toward Indian Lake, it is hard to miss the big “Got Milk?” sign.
It is planted on Roger Sanders’ farm, shortly after you cross the Allen-Auglaize County border. It’s been there for years.
Today, it’s a sign of the past.
Sanders, a proud dairy farmer for 42 years, sold all of his cows — close to 100 of them — just over a year ago. Got Milk, no more.
It’s something the 67-year-old farmer never imagined could happen. Yes, dairy farming is hard work — and it likely had something to do with Sanders’ two hip replacements, as well as a knee replacement — but hard work has always been the engine that drives Roger’s life. Up early in the morning, going at it until dusk. He would have it no other way.
“For days, I was physically sick about selling the cows, but that’s what needed to be done,” Sanders said.
Change after change did him in.
It started with people drinking less milk, with 2015 being especially tough as milk consumption decreased by almost 7% from the previous year. With an influx of milk on the market, places such as Walmart began selling a gallon of milk for just under a dollar, a practice which continues today.
“A small dairy farmer cannot even produce milk for a dollar,” Sanders lamented.
The hurt was only beginning.
If a farmer raised cows on genetically modified feed, many consumers wanted nothing to do with their milk, places like Dannon Yogurt insisted. They wanted to make sure the labels on their products reflected its non-GMO content.
“Our costs went up,” Sanders said.
Meanwhile, products such as soy, almond and coconut milk became more popular thanks to warnings — not proof — that linked high dairy intake to heart disease, cancer and weight gain. The environmentalists even brought their fear-mongering to the party, claiming the manure, belching and flatulence by cattle omitted greenhouse gases.
If all that wasn’t enough to sour a dairyman’s milk business, it also became harder to find farmhands.
“I had a super-duper guy working with me, but eventually he moved on,” Sanders said.
Today, the dairy farms making it are the larger operations, but even those big guys are scrambling.
“I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. You don’t see hen houses behind someone’s barn anymore. The chicken operations followed the hog farms … both swallowed by bigger operations, which have their own issues. Now it’s the dairyman being hit,” Sanders said.
More than 2,700 family dairy farms went out of business last year, and 94,000 have stopped producing milk since 1992, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The nation’s largest milk producer, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy last November. Even Elsie the Cow, the trademark of the Borden Dairy Co., has been treated horribly. Last month, Borden Dairy, one of America’s oldest dairy companies, joined Dean Foods in bankruptcy court.
Sanders sold his cows to Natural Choice Dairy in Alger, an operation that milks 7,500 to 15,000 cows at any given time.
“They have robots milking cows,” Sanders pointed out.
A few weeks after the sale, Natural Choice came back to Sanders and offered to hire him to raise heifers, young female cows that have yet to give birth to calves.
“There was about a two-week period I didn’t have an animal on the farm. I’ve been feeding 140 or so heifers since. It keeps me busy,” Sanders said.
The industry hasn’t been sitting around crying over spilled milk. It’s been trying to grow profits with new products. Check out the dairy cases at Meijer, Aldi’s, Walmart and Chief Super Market, and you’ll find milk flavors ranging from banana and strawberry to blueberry and orange, not to mention all the coffee creamers, cheeses and chip and vegetable dips.
Borden Dairy, meanwhile, is ripping a page out of the dairy industry’s 1990s marketing playbook, which saw the likes of Bill Clinton and Britney Spears wearing white beverage mustaches in the “Got Milk?” advertisements. But instead of “Got Milk?,” it will be along the line of “got cookies with milk.” By next year, Borden plans on selling cartons of milk with cookies attached.
“People love cookies in milk. It will be a size that you can actually eat in the car. Put it in the cup holder — and you can dip the cookie,” Tony Sarsam, chief executive officer of Borden Dairy Co., told Bloomberg News.
Roger Sanders says he cannot wait to see that. He hopes the cookies will be good because he knows the milk will be.
“No one produces milk as good as the United States dairy farmer,” he said. “Absolutely no one.”
ROSES AND THORNS: The rose garden is leaping into action as it prepares itself for a possible world’s record.
Rose: On Saturday, the Wapakoneta First on the Moon committee will try to set a Guinness world record for the “largest gathering of people dressed as astronauts.” It picked Saturday because Feb. 29 is the leap day of leap year. The record-breaking attempt will include a leap for posterity at 10:56 a.m. at the downtown parkway. Why 10:56 a.m.? That’s the time Neil Armstrong made his giant leap onto the moon on July 20, 1969.
Rose: Columbus Grove is quickly becoming known as the home of Pluggers, as Barbara Griffith became the third person from the village this year to have her idea featured in the nationally-syndicated comic strip. She joined Keith Bolyard Jr. and Mary Kay Verhoff. Griffith’s definition of a Plugger appeared Friday. She noted a Plugger can dial a wrong number on a landline (of course) and still have a 15-minute conversation.
Thorn: To yours truly for stating last week that Shawnee and Columbus Grove finished the regular season in boys’ basketball unbeaten. There was still a week of the regular season left. Fortunately, I didn’t jinx either team, as they each head into the tournament with perfect 22-0 records.
Thorn: No end is in sight for a $3.9 million sewer project in the area of Jameson Avenue and High Street. Construction has been going on for more than a year, and a new contractor has been hired, but there is no estimated completion date given the many problems workers have already experienced.
PARTING SHOT: “I would have answered your letter sooner, but you didn’t send one.” – a mother’s note to a daughter in college.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.