By Ted Waddell
JEFFERSONVILLE March 23, 2004 Pop open a bottle of milk with a local farmer, and youre likely to open up a can of worms.
In shooting the breeze with a few area dairy farmers earlier this month at Dairy Day 2004 in Jeffersonville, you quickly got the idea that a lot of these independently minded folks have milk running through their hard-working veins as they struggle to hang onto a way of life thats rapidly disappearing faster than a spilled can of milk evaporating under a blazing summer sun.
Seventy-seven-year-old Ralph Sykes of North Branch grew up on the family farm founded by his grandfather, George Hust.
He began shipping milk in 1950 and is still going strong despite the current state of world affairs and a sluggish dairy market.
Sykes runs 250 head on about 400 acres of owned and rented land.
I dont think the state of the country is too good right now its just the way things are going, he said. Were giving way too much to foreign countries and aint taking care of the United States.
When places close up and thousands of people are laid off, these people still have got to be fed, he said.
His take on the dairy industry?
I guess it aint too bad right now, but it hasnt been good since 1950, said Sykes. Since then, milk prices have been down so low that a farmer always has to bend over to make a living and support his family, and hes got no time off.
Looking down the road a piece, Sykes said that when the time comes, hes going to pass the farm along to his middle-aged sons Robert and Timothy and let them decide what to do with it.
What their pleasure is, I dont know, he said.
Dave Weiss of Weiss Dairy Farm near Briscoe said his father Lester started the operation in 1947. He took it over in 67.
I guess that means Im getting to be a veteran, joked the 54-year-old dairyman, who runs about 450 head on close to 2,000 acres.
Whats his view of the dairy industry today?
Its too up and down. . . . Its not stable, not steady, said Weiss. Some years, you get a good price, but too many years like these last two, its so down that it really hurts. Its going to take a long time to recover.
Weiss said that a lot of area dairy farmers himself included had to borrow money to keep their farms afloat.
And this was from a guy whos part of a crowd not known for an extravagant lifestyle, flashy cars or a bottle of champagne over a candlelight dinner.
Its the first time Ive ever had to borrow, except to put it into the farm, said Weiss. I had to just to keep going, but if youre in it for the long haul, youve got to do it.
He said some farmers just couldnt see weathering the tough times, so they threw up their hands and said, Thats it.
Weiss was born on the family farm up the Briscoe Road a ways, between Jeffersonville and Swan Lake.
Youve got to remember this is a way of life, he said. We choose this lifestyle, and were in it.
Its all me and a couple of fulltime hired help and a part-time guy, he added.
He said the area is changing before his eyes as developers snatch up farmland left and right.
The land is worth money, and every year we lose a little more, he said.
The area has changed, sometimes for the better, but look at the amount of crime, said Weiss. Look in the police blotter in the Sullivan County Democrat, and sometimes its a full page!
Ellis Hanslmaier, a 67-year-old dairyman up on Hust Road near Callicoon Center, said he was raised on the farm that he inherited from his mother Gerta.
The Jeffersonville High School Class of 54 grad runs about 55 head on 270 acres.
They say the industry is on the upswing, but I dont know because the prices are down and feed prices are up he said. Thats what were up against.
But Hanslmaier wouldnt have it any other way.
Im used to the way of life because I grew up on a farm, he said. Its a good way of life, because to a degree youre your own boss, and youre not doing the same thing every day.
Ken Kellers farm, Keller Dairy Farm of Callicoon Center, has been in his family for 130 years.
It was established by his great grandfather Jacob Keller and then passed down to his grandfather Arthur, and when the time was right, to his father Calvin.
He took over the farm in 1990 after graduating from Jeff in 83.
Keller said he has about 60 milk cows and 40 head of young stock on a total of about 250 acres.
Whats it like to be a dairy farmer?
Busy! he replied. Youve got cows to milk twice a day, seven days a week, and they dont go on vacation.
On a more serious note, Keller said its hard to get hired help with milk prices so low.
To keep things going, his wife Sarah helps out, while his seven-year-old son Jacob takes care of the chickens and gives the calves their milk.
Its been a tough go of it, especially the last two years, said Keller. You have a lot of money one month, and then youre scraping along again.
Glenn Swendsen of Narrowsburg has been running Midway Farm for a lot longer than the 39 years hell admit to.
The farm was started sometime in the late 1800s by his grandfather Virgil Conklin, and he took it over at the age of 14 after his dad Clarence was struck by a doctor from the city who didnt see him crossing the road on a fog-bound day in 1949.
He lived for three days, but he was in a coma all smashed up, recalled Swendsen, a 1953 graduate of Narrowsburg Central School.
At its peak, the farm boasted 170 head. In recent years, Swendsens cut it back a bit to 43 cows he keeps for a neighboring farmer.
Theyd better do something, he said of the state of the dairy industry today. Theyd better give milk producers a better price, or they aint going to have any more, I think.
Swendsen said the industry is still operating at 1970s-80s milk prices, but the cost of production has doubled or tripled.
I dont do near as much now as I used to, he said. Its called semi-retired. Ive got the semi part down pretty good, but I cant seem to find the retired.