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July 17, 2010

Reporter's Notebook: Dairy farmers shed light on occupation


Daily Star

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I am not a morning person, but I approached the opportunity to chronicle a day in the life of a dairy farmer with little hesitation. When Otego dairy farmer Tony Ellis and his wife, Marie, generously agreed to "open up their barn" for me and photographer Brit Worgan, I didn't hesitate for a moment when he said his day began at about 4:45 a.m. There have been "sleepless" nights when I got to bed around that time, so I figured I could plow through it _ and it worked.

I have been reporting on the dairy industry for The Daily Star for a number of years, and I relished the opportunity to get some first-hand insight.

When my editor asked me if I thought I would get to milk a cow, I said that I was hopeful that Tony and Marie would give me that opportunity. I had spoken with them a few times in the several years they have been in farming. They have always been patient and generous with their time, and they proved that again by agreeing to be shadowed during the day.

But I was really hoping that they would give me the chance to drive a tractor. I didn't want to push my luck and ask about that on the phone in setting up the June date.

But true to his nature, Tony generously offered to let Brit and me have a turn behind the wheel after I expressed an interest.

It was great, though I must admit to being a little nervous having my driving skills put to the test in a nearby field. It took a lot of work to drive so the mower cut properly, which was aided by Tony's guidance. I also took a lot more pleasure than I should admit to sitting on the tractor on the open road while Tony drove it home.

Oh yeah, milking a cow is quite an experience _ for those that don't have to do it every day. With the help of both farmers, I got the job done. Although by the afternoon milking, I admit I was so tired, I needed a little help.

I have written many stories about the plight of the dairy farmer over the years, as he or she deals with low milk prices and increasing costs. But by the end of the day, I had a lot more respect for their resiliency.

I was amazed that two people could work such hours and then get up the next day and do it all over again _ while being concerned about the economic profitability of their venture.

"It's not an occupation for the weak-bodied or weak-minded," Tony said. "You have to keep going."

There are days when he questions things, but "I want to make a future for my family," Tony said. "How tough are we? Time will tell. So far we are doing all right."

Thank you, Tony and Marie, for taking the time to provide the experience and explain some of the things farmers are facing as they work to maintain a way of life. While hard work and good management aren't enough over the long term to ensure the future for dairy farmers, it was clear the couple were doing all they could to succeed.

As ambassadors for the dairy industry, thank you for helping me and The Daily Star readers better understand what you do.

Mark Boshnack can be reached at 432-1000 or (800) 721-1000, ext. 218, or at mboshnack@thedailystar.com.