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As Milk Profits Decline, Area Family Farms Struggle To Survive

Samantha Brewer

Jerry Brewer is leaning against a white pickup truck, looking over the grassy fields of his dairy farm in Marengo, Indiana, about 30 miles outside of Louisville.

“Well, my father started here right after World War II with a few chickens -- and then I come along and they begin to have the dairy,” Brewer says. “I was born in that house up over the hill, so been feeding calves since I was big enough to carry a bucket.”

Brewer Family Farm is a modest operation, with a faded barn nestled between two hills and about 60 dairy cows. For three generations, it’s been in the Brewer family.

That is, until now.

Next to the gravel driveway by the farmhouse, there’s a sign advertising an auction. It’s set for Monday, and for the past three hours, interested buyers have been scouting out the property.

“Never thought I’d see my equipment all lined up there for sale unless I had a terminal illness or cancer,” Brewer says. “I never thought it’d be because of finances, but that’s what it is.”

But Brewer isn’t alone, says Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Arlington, Virginia.

“We’ve seen a decline in dairy farm numbers going back to the end of World War II,” Galen says. “Seeing a year-over-year decline is the norm.”

Galen says dairy is a business where it’s increasingly hard for small, family farmers -- like Jerry Brewer and his kids -- to make a living.

“There’s a number of different things happening,” he says. “One is that milk prices at the farm level -- when you adjust for inflation -- have declined significantly and so it’s harder for a smaller-sized farm to support your typical family.”

Dairy farming is also just a really demanding job -- there are no off-days.

“If you are a smaller farm that doesn’t have hired help, or you don’t have anyone coming in to help you, and you have to milk those cows every day of the year, that is very taxing on people,” Galen says.

This has resulted in a nearly 50 percent drop in the number of dairy farms in Kentucky over the last decade:

“[There were] 1,335 dairy farms in 2005,” Galen says. “Then 2015, 10 years later, there were 690.”

Nationally, the drop is similar-- and in Indiana, the Brewers own the only dairy farm left in Crawford County.

“Economically, it’s just hard to compete as a small farm,” Jerry Brewer says.

Their community of Marengo has tried to rally around them -- hosting bake sales and starting some online crowdfunding --  in hopes that the family can retain some of their land.

But Brewer knows it probably won’t be enough to save the entire family farm.

All the prayers and pats on the back -- it’s helped,” Brewer says. “This is tough. My dad, I mean, he stomped all over Germany, Japan and France -- and he comes home and makes this. It’s just hard.”