Let’s face it. we don’t look like we used to. The public’s perception of the family dairy farm involves warm fuzzy feelings about five cows in a picturesque farmstead, complete with a few pigs, a crowing rooster and a passel of cats. The farmer wears overalls, and his wife cooks amazing farm breakfasts of eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and giant slabs of ham and bacon.

People don’t understand that agricultural producers have evolved. It’s hard for them to imagine that we function from economies of scale — just like any other business — we take care of the animals and the environment, and we are interested in our communities and our neighbors. And since we have shucked the external trappings of that stereotypical farmer, it is difficult for them to comprehend that we are still integrity-filled, but with a different-looking farmstead.

Economic development
I got involved in our local economic development board when they it was trying to enhance our local downtown. The board was interested in moving away from agriculture, and focusing on the economic base of Main Street, mainly because agriculture wasn’t very glamorous.

Most dairies operate outside of town, so we are out of sight, out of mind, unless of course our farms have an odor problem. That occasional scent is much easier to get along with if neighbors understand the economic value that allows the local dress shop, grocery store and school to function. If you don’t supply them with the information about your local economic input, they simply assume that you don’t have much effect, except for the odor.

Dairy farms have a multiplier effect on the local economy. For every $1 in sales, a dairy farm boosts the local economy by $2.69, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The 12 dairies in Morgan County, Colo., gross more than $40 million in milk sales. Multiplied by 2.69, the economic value becomes $107,600,000.

Can the other businesses on Main Street do that?

After I explained the economic value of ag, the board decided to apply for and received a grant to design and develop an agriculture-based, value-added business accelerator. And, while we are still looking to improve the economic climate on Main Street, our town is no longer overlooking the economic and moral value of agriculture.

Health benefits of dairy
The health research by nutritionist Michael Zemel at the University of Tennessee gives us even more good news to share. Zemel’s work shows that calcium — consumed in sufficient quantities — causes fat cells not to store fat. Inadequate calcium levels, on the other hand, tell a person’s body that a famine is coming, so it goes into survival mode and stores fat.

By consuming three servings of calcium-rich dairy foods daily, people can reduce their body fat and become healthier. That’s a message everyone wants to hear!

Speak up
The only way the public will understand what we do, how we do it, and our benefit to society, is if we tell them. Unless we speak up, people are free to draw their own conclusions about what we do, or even worse, many environmental and animal-rights groups are quite happy to fill in the blanks for them — no doubt distorting the truth. 

We do not look like we used to. But we still have a great story to tell.

Mary Kraft co-manages Badger Creek Farm in Fort Morgan, Colo., with her husband, Chris. She also speaks up for agriculture in the National Young Farmer’s Educational Association and gives dairy tours.