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How to Make a Million Dollars Farming

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by John O’Brien

I used to advertise myself, in the movie business, as “the only filmmaker in America who can shear a sheep and milk a cow.” It was a catchy line, but was probably not a fact. When dairy farmer and filmmaker George Woodard was a pup, did he ever shear a sheep?  I don’t know; I’ll have to ask him.  I was at a film festival once and a director came up to me and said, “I can’t shear a sheep, but I’ve milked a lot of cows.” He was from Wisconsin and helped his brother milk a large herd of Holsteins. When his brother couldn’t make a living dairy farming, they raised marijuana for a summer, growing it in the cornfields. The crop was highly profitable, but the anxiety involved with bringing the contraband to harvest was more than the brothers could bear (at one point a police helicopter hovered over their fields before flying away). They never grew pot again. The filmmaking brother became a yoga instructor before making a movie about a dairy farmer who falls in love.

When it comes to farming, I suspect there’s nothing more profitable than growing pot. But I only speculate; I’ve never met an actual organic marijuana farmer. I do know some Vermont organic dairy farmers, though. They’re easier to spot.

I woke up this morning wondering how much money a dairy cow makes for the farmer in a day. I’ve never seen that number in print. I called up Gary Mullen. He’s on the select board in Tunbridge. He races at Thunder Road. He’s also an organic dairy farmer.

Here’s what I learned from Gary:

A gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds.

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A good average dairy cow gives 45 to 50 pounds a day (this is splitting the difference between a Jersey and a Holstein).

On average, a cow is milked 305 days a year.

The price that the dairy farmer gets paid for 100 pounds of organic milk is between $35 and $39; or let’s say 35 to 39 cents per pound of milk. By comparison, nonorganic dairy farmers receive somewhere between $16 to $30 per 100 pounds.

Therefore, if the good average dairy cow gives 50 pounds of milk daily, and the farmer sells that milk for 35 cents per pound, the farmer grosses $17.50 per day per milking cow. That cow makes $5,337.50 for the farmer in one year.

If a dairy farmer is milking 100 cows, that farmer grosses $533,750 in one year.  Before expenses are subtracted, every day the farmer makes $1,750.

Dairy farming, not unlike restaurants, is a business where lots of money comes in … and lots of money goes out.

Last year, Gary Mullen’s milk check was $235,000.

His grain bill was $96,000.

On average, a cow eats one square bale a day. A square bale costs — ballpark — about $3.50. Hay needs to be fed about 180 days a year—meaning, the grass doesn’t grow from Nov. 1 to May 1. If a farmer bought hay for just one milking cow, it would cost $630 for the winter. If the farmer bought hay for all 100 of his milking cows, it would cost $63,000.

Like most dairy farmers, Gary Mullen makes his own hay. But that doesn’t mean it’s free. To put up the equivalent of 18,000 square bales requires tractors, mowers, rakes, tedders, a baler, hay wagons, barns, gallons of diesel, and a couple of experienced farmhands who know how to run all the equipment.

From property taxes to Bag Balm, the expenses never seem to end, and before you know it the milk check is less than the sum of bills and the old joke has come true:

Q:  How do you make a million dollars farming?

A:  Start with two million.

Most of the dairy farmers left are still here because they’re frugal, savvy, hard working, and they grew up in the family business, inheriting the land they farm.  To start from scratch, to buy a farm and cows and equipment, would take just about all of that two million dollars.

I predict that dairy farming will continue to decline; the number of cows might remain the same, but there will be fewer farms and fewer farm families.  It’s a hard way to make a living.  The hours are long.  If the farmer kept accurate records of his or her days, it probably pays less than minimum wage.  And most of the time you smell like cow shit.

Tunbridge Central School is looking for a new principal. The hours are long. You have to enjoy endless meetings, paperwork, disciplining bullies and smart alecks. But it pays well:  $84,460. I don’t know any dairy farmers who made $84,460 last year. In fact, I don’t know any farmers who made $84,460 last year. Is it possible to make that much selling beef or pork or chicken at farmers markets? Or selling garlic to local co-ops? Or lamb to New York restaurants? Maple syrup? Apples? PYO strawberries or blueberries? Christmas trees? Artisanal cheese? Maybe. I really don’t know. Investigations for future columns.

As the only sheep farmer in America who has made four feature films, I have a recommendation for the reader (it’s a 1:39 minute short that I wish I’d made):  Google “Mitchell and Webb Situation—Farming—YouTube.”

Center Farm in East Montpelier. Photo by Michael Jermyn
Center Farm in East Montpelier. Photo by Michael Jermyn