Evaporating milk: ND dairy farms dwindle in numberNorth Dakota is a leading producer of sunflowers and canola, but it lags behind many states in the Midwest when it comes to dairy production. Dairy farms have been disappearing across North Dakota over the years, said Gary Hoffman, executive director of the North Dakota Dairy Coalition for eight years. He also serves as the state’s director of dairy development.
By: Betsy Simon, The Dickinson Press
North Dakota is a leading producer of sunflowers and canola, but it lags behind many states in the Midwest when it comes to dairy production.
Dairy farms have been disappearing across North Dakota over the years, said Gary Hoffman, executive director of the North Dakota Dairy Coalition for eight years. He also serves as the state’s director of dairy development.
According to the Midwest Dairy Association, North Dakota had 145 licensed dairy herds in 2011.
The association estimates that The Peace Garden State produces 40 million gallons of milk. That makes North Dakota the 35th largest milk-producing state.
“Farming has been in my family since my grandpa came out here, but there’s not really a lot of dairy in North Dakota,” said Dickinson dairy farmer Dean Karsky, who has 200 cattle year-round.
Karsky also grows corn, barley and alfalfa, all of which he uses as feed for his cattle.
Growing the crops has become a problem for him as the city expands its borders and inches
closer to his property on 35th Street Southwest.
“My biggest problem is land because I live so close to town and a lot of the land is being taken for development,” Karsky said. “If I lose land, I lose land to grow feed for the cows.”
Sherry Newell, director of communications, agricultural and dairy industry trade media for the Midwest Dairy Association, said there are numerous reasons why North Dakota is not a top dairy-producing state.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate about why that is because I do not know enough about the industry in North Dakota, but often the size of the dairy industry in a state is linked to locations, land types and the infrastructure that is available for the industry,” she said.
Karsky said that assessment is right on the money.
“Part of it is because there are no processing plants around here, so milk has to be shipped pretty far and that costs farmers a lot of money,” he said. “Dairy farming is also hard work and long hours, but it’s a good living and we’ll do it as long as we can.”
Hoffman said North Dakota’s dairy industry used to be larger.
“There used to be farms in every section of North Dakota, but there just aren’t anymore and it’s not just dairy farms where we are seeing this trend,” he said. “It’s also true with grain and beef producers too.”
But it may not be noticeable to the average consumer of dairy products, who can still find “a
stable and plentiful supply” of milk and milk-based products sitting on the shelves in their local
supermarkets, Hoffman said.
He credits that to the expansion of the dairy farms that remain across the state.
“Where an operation use to milk maybe 30 or 40 cows, they may be milking closer to 130 or 140 cows now,” Hoffman said. “Running a dairy farm is a very labor-intensive endeavor, and it’s not a lifestyle that a lot of young people want to take on, even after they learned the ropes growing up on a dairy farm.”
Karsky said the North Dakota Dairy Coalition does its best to encourage young people to stay on the farm and to continue their parents’ lifework.
Karsky’s daughter, Rachel, 29, is proof that youth can still be lured back to the farm to carry on the family’s agricultural lifestyle.
“It’s hard work (on the farm) but I’ve known I wanted to do this probably since I graduated from college,” Rachel Karsky said while milking cows in the family’s barn Wednesday afternoon.
Karsky watched his daughter’s love of the dairy farm blossom from youth into adulthood, before her passion for the cattle industry eventually earned her a spot working beside her father on the farm, milking and caring for the herd of cattle.
“My daughter grew up around the dairy cows and now she works with me as one of the full-time employees,” Karsky said. “She’s always liked to show cattle and always wanted her own cattle. She’s a reason we’ve stuck with this.”