Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Day with the Dairymen of Georgia

Little did I know that Georgia's second biggest dairy region was only about 35 minutes south of Athens.

Morgan and Putnam Counties are north Georgia's last dairy counties. Today I was part of a meeting hosted by University of Georgia extension on helping dairy operators develop environmental management plans for their farms.

It was nice rainy morning, the kind that looks just like Portland, OR weather from the inside of a van, but once you took one step outside and were enveloped with the heat and humidity you realized we're still in the south and its still August. Myself and two UGA faculty took some remote, winding and quite pretty roads around the top end of Lake Oconee, passing through Greshamville, on our way to Buckhead. No, not the Buckhead in Atlanta. This is Buckhead of Morgan County. The two are just a little bit different.

We took a left at the bait shop and another left at the fillin' station and pulled into Bonner's Buffet Restaurant where the Georgia Dairy Association has its meetings every month.

We had our meeting. It was a tough sell to encourage these busy farmers of the utility of taking time from their busy schedules to develop an environmental management system (EMS) for their farm. It was a fairly new approach to addressing environmental issues, and its success rate hadn't yet been proven. At least not on farms. EMS's were originally conceived for industry as a way to be proactive, make continuous incremental improvements, stay ahead of regulation, and ultimately cut costs. Cutting costs had been successful for industry through implementation of an EMS. Thus far the EMS strategy on farms hadn't shown that many cost benefits.

There were some good questions from the audience. One observation made was that perhaps farms implementing EMS hadn't seen cost savings because farmers are already having to be as efficient as possible just to survive. The audience felt like there was some validity to this point.

The group performed an exercise where they went through a list of environmental management concerns on their farm and they ranked how important each one was. They performed this ranking for themselves as the owner/operator, but also how important these topics were to regulators, to neighbors and to environmental groups. The topics were on everything from nitrate pollution of groundwater, to erosion, to dust and odors, and wildlife habitat. They also decided to add water use to the list. It was interesting and maybe just a little surprising that they consistently voted themselves as having the highest concern on most topics. The group was really engaged at this point. Some of them recognized that they were very concerned about these issues and probably hadn't given adequate reflection on management opportunities on their farm.

After the talk it was time for lunch. Fried catfish, fried chicken, barbeque, french fries, hush puppies, slaw, watermelon and cherry cobbler. I went back for seconds and thirds and had about 4 glasses of iced tea. Over lunch I asked if they drank their own milk on the farm. To my surprise they said no, they bought milk in the store like everybody else. The fella sitting next to me said that when his father was still around they used to pick one cow out of the herd that they would hand milk for themselves. She was chosen for two reasons. She always showed the lowest bacteria count in her milk and she was nice and easy to milk. The only problem, it slowed up the line when she came into the parlor to be hand milked. He said they don't do that anymore. Both the fellas I was chatting with added that people come by the farm sometimes and ask to buy unpasteurized milk out of the tank. They'll always say, "We'll pay you." And these guys always respond, "I don't care. I can't sell you that milk." Unpastuerized is illegal to sell in Georgia and there would be stiff penalties.

The extension agent who was sitting with us added that recently some folks got sick who were drinking raw milk that was being sold as pet food (one method farmers have used to sell raw milk). I wanted to know more about their personal tastes and distinctions for milk from the farm vs. the grocery store, but I got the impression they didn't really think that way. They were interested in my visit to Russel Johnson's farm and his plans to build a bottling facility and selling his milk direct to grocery stores.

During my final conversations on the front porch this little stray kitten kept climbing up my leg clear up to my belt. That cat had more personality than most any cat I've seen. Would've made a good farm cat. If only I had a farm.

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