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Ag in my Land: Life on a dairy farm in Alabama

Ag in my Land is an online series that celebrates farming globally, providing an insight in to what life is like on-farm around the world.


Emily   Ashworth

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Emily   Ashworth
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Will Gilmer, 38, runs a family dairy farm between the small towns of Vernon and Sulligent, Northwest Alabama and shares his journey on Twitter where he has over twelve thousand followers.


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Are you from a farming family?

 

My family has been farming in our community for nearly 200 years, and my Grandfather built our dairy in the 1950’s.

 

What do you farm and how big is it?

 

Our farm covers approximately 650 acres, some of which is used as permanent pasture and some for forage production. My father and I own half the property and lease the remainder from his siblings. We also lease an additional 150 acres in our community for forage production.

 

Our dairy herd consists of 225 Holstein cows and an additional 175 replacement heifers. Milk and cattle sales account for all of our farm income. All of the crops we grow - silage corn, hay, small grains - are harvested and used to feed our cattle.

 

Please can you describe your farm?

 

Our farm is located five miles from the nearest town in the rolling hills of rural Northwest Alabama. Most of our fields are terraced to help prevent soil erosion, and many of our pastures contain both native hardwood trees or planted pine trees to provide cover for the cattle. All of the structures on our farm - the barns, sheds, and house - range from ten to fifty years-old.

 

What does a typical day consist of?

 

I wake up at 3am each morning and meet my Father at our dairy barn to milk the cows until around 7am. After breakfast and a short rest, we return to feed our cattle and begin working on whatever tasks the day calls for, be it herd work, cropping or maintenance. We will take an hour break for lunch and then milk and feed our cows again from 1-4pm. I will often work later during the spring and summer as I tend to our forage crops.

 

What are the biggest problems facing the American dairy industry? What do you get paid per litre? Do you sell to supermarkets?

 

The most immediate problems facing the American dairy industry are related to production outpacing demand which is in turn depressing prices. While there is a growing demand for certain dairy foods like cheese and butter, per capita demand for fluid milk has been in long decline and we have not competed effectively enough in the export market to make up the difference.

 

Quite a few farms that ship directly to processors are having their contracts terminated due to the oversupply, and more are culling significant numbers of their cows to help minimize their losses. The current price in my location is roughly $14 per hundred pounds* and will likely decrease over the next three months as more milk enters the market during the “Spring flush.”

 

Most of the milk produced in the south-eastern region of the United States is bottled by major food companies or grocery chains. My farm’s milk is marketed through a cooperative that has supply contracts with several of these companies, so ours may be bottled under a number of different labels.

 

*Around 0.22ppl in UK dairy terms

What is the farming community like

What is the farming community like?

 

I live in a rural county in which forestry accounts for roughly eighty percent of the acreage, so you can’t go very far without seeing lots of trees. We operate the only remaining dairy in my county, and we are joined by one poultry farmer, two commodity crop farmers, and a handful of beef farmers as the only people making our full-time living in production agriculture.

 

Specific to dairy, my region has lost many farms over the past two decades. 125 operating dairies were licensed in Alabama fifteen years ago, and today we have only 35. Neighbouring states have seen similar declines as well. The loss of farms has also resulted in a loss of options for service and supplies, and the nearest “full service” dairy equipment and supply company is now six hours from my farm.

 

Looking at the future, how will you safeguard your farm knowing so many others have closed?

 

We are taking steps to be in a position to successfully transition to raising beef instead of dairy farming, should the market no longer support dairy operations in our area - whether because of low margins or loss of infrastructure.

What is the biggest difference between American dairy farming and British dairy farming?

 

The economics of dairy farming and the path milk takes from farm to table are probably the biggest differences between the American and British industries.

 

Our milk is put onto a transport trailer every two days and hauled to a milk processing plant.

 

Though the plant is only 100 miles from our farm, ours is only the second of several farms on that transport's route, so it actually travels a bit further before it finally reaches the plant. Once it is offloaded, it is pasteurised, processed, and packaged (all of the milk in our area is "jugged" for drinking). From there, wholesalers distribute the milk cartons from the plant to various retail stores in the region.

 

We share the same commitment to stewardship, quality, and to some degree the same climate. Average winter temperatures are around -1degC, and summer highs average 32degC, though high humidity can push the 37degC.

 

We get between 55-60 inches of rainfall each year.

what do you love most

What do you love most about your job?

 

Though I could have pursued many other careers and have had opportunities to take jobs in the city that offered higher pay for fewer hours, I feel that farming is my calling. Knowing that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing fuels my love and passion for farming and makes all the challenges worthwhile.

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