WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County has lost close to 50 dairy farms in the last 50 years.
Nelson Sine, a local farmer and organizer for the dairy center at the county fairgrounds, said it’s important to remember the role dairy farmers once played in the county. To help preserve their memory, the center hung a sign under the shade of a gazebo honoring the names of the now-extinct farms.
The gazebo, Sine said, not only offers Shenandoah County Fair visitors a respite from the heat and a shady spot to sit and eat their ice cream, it is dedicated to the once, current and future dairy farmers in the county.
“We only have 10 left in Shenandoah County,” Sine said. “So we decided that we wanted to do something so the future generations would know how big of an impact the dairy had in Shenandoah County.”
Dairy has been dwindling in the county and around the country in recent years. Sine said the causes are numerous and simple explanations don’t come close to solving any mysteries.
Far from the cause, but certainly not far from a factor, Sine said consolidation, combined with increased costs to begin farming have gutted a once prosperous industry. Sine said he estimated Virginia, at its peak, had around 1,500 dairy farms whereas now, that figure is closer to 500.
Shenandoah County is the state’s fifth-most prosperous agricultural county, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau.
Historic trends are intersecting with current public policies that are interfering with some of Virginia’s largest trading partners — China, Canada and Mexico.
Eric Paulson, the executive secretary of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, said that recent damage mitigation payments have barely covered the cost of feed for most farms use. Rather than receiving what looks like a bailout, Paulson said most farmers would prefer to improve relations with their trading partners.
The Southeast is a unique area for dairy products, Paulson said, as it acts inversely to the rest of the country. While most other regions are shipping out most of their liquid milk and retaining dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, the Southeast does the opposite.
Struggles dairy farmers face are indicative of troubles agriculture producers are facing in general in the area, Sine said.
“This valley was considered the breadbasket of the confederacy,” he said. “It just goes to show, in the southern part of the country, how big of an impact the valley had overall.”
Sine separated the historical confederacy from the point that while the valley used to feed hundreds of thousands, its impact has diminished significantly.
Part of it comes down to how expensive farming has become, both Paulson and Sine said. To get into the dairy farming business, both men suggested nothing less than $1 million was an adequate starting figure.
“Your living expenses that everyone else has, we have that to come out on top of the milk, out of our price,” Sine said. “We end up paying more and more through the hauling; we have to pay to have our milk hauled and we have to pay to have our feed hauled in.”
“The farmer is the only one that bought retail and sold wholesale,” Sine said. “And it’s still true now.”
Sine said he and the dairy center don’t imagine the gazebo with its list of names will be the spark that returns dairy farming to prominence. The problems, he said, are much bigger than that but it is important to remember and honor the work that went into helping the county prosper.
“It’s just one of those things that when there’s no more dairy farmers here, hopefully, the dairy center will still be going,” Sine said. “And people can come in here and say, ‘Here’s what was in this county at this time and now we don’t have it.’”