By Bill Lauterbach
Our family has known Jeff and Julie Alexander for decades. We affectionately call them “our neighbors down the road.” I had contacted Jeff and Julie a few days ago, looking for some agricultural information. When Julie called me back, I was shocked to learn from her that they had decided to leave the dairy business. To paraphrase Julie, leaving the business was a difficult decision for Jeff, but it is even more challenging to continue in a profession that is no longer profitable.
Na-Lar Farms is the official farm name established in 1977 by Jeff’s parents, Nadine and Larry Alexander. From Nadine’s name came the “Na” and from Larry’s name came the “Lar”. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander are still living next door to Jeff and Julie on the farm.
Julie announced the closing of the dairy farm via her Facebook page.
“After 40 years of milking cows, our family has left the dairy farming business. Na-Lar Farms was established in 1977 with now three generations of Alexander men having carried this legacy. Our time will still be spent in crop production as we continue to grow corn, soybeans, wheat and hay as well as being an active part of our agriculture community.”
Just what prompted their decision to close the dairy farm? Jeff states; “I had a good run of 40 years. But it was a little bit of everything. You start looking at the workload and the prices you are rewarded for your work, and we were going backwards.”Government regulations were a huge factor.
“We installed milking robots in our barns four years ago and everything was fine, then an inspector shows up one day and says, ‘Nope, we are going to change that. Now you need to spend $2,500 upgrading these valves.’ They actually stopped us from shipping Grade A milk for ten days so we received less money for our milk when nothing, including the quality of the milk, had changed. The prices have been low for a few years. It just got to the point that if you’re losing money milking cows, refinancing, borrowing more, trying to pay bills, it just didn’t make sense. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.”
How does Jeff feel about the situation? “A little of everything – anger, sadness, yet some relief,” he said.“There is anger because there isn’t a system in place to make pricing better or allow small family farms the economic ability to succeed. Now it’s ‘get bigger or get out of the way.’ One after another, small farms are going away.”
A sense of sadness sometimes sets in when Jeff looks at the clock and sees it’s 6 a.m. and thinks he must go out [to the barn] to milk, and then realizes he doesn’t have to. Or maybe less worry sometimes such as when the family lost power during the night and was thankful they no longer had cows to worry about.
Na-Lar Farms will still be growing crops. Does that help to take some of the sting of not doing the dairy routine any longer? “Yeah, because we are still operating the farm, we still sell hay and straw, we’ll have more grain,” Jeff said. “And I enjoy running the equipment.”
In all the years of running Na-Lar Dairy, what are the memorable moments and the moments Jeff Alexander would like to forget?
The memorable: “Probably a baby calf being born out of a really good cow and a really good bull,” Jeff said. The forgettable: “Snow, drought, no rain. The markets; when markets are going down when things are out of your control.” Jeff also says there is some humor in farming from people who don’t understand farmers or the farming business, and the interaction that takes place. “It makes for good storytelling over the years.”
Jeff’s wife Julie Alexander, who also works as Michigan’s 64th District state representative, reflected on her years at Na-Lar Dairy.
“Reflecting on 31 years as a dairy farmer’s wife leads me to memories that will last a lifetime,” she said. “As I hadn’t grown up on a farm, Jeff’s passion for dairy cows became very apparent and I knew the ‘I do’ at the altar would change my way of life. But I never would have imagined how the challenges would be mingled with such incredible rewards.”
“A farmer holds a tremendous sense of pride and tradition as they long to pass this heritage on to the next generation,” Julie says. “However, farmers are also professional gamblers unable to control many variables that determine the commodity price they receive.”
Julie expounded on what has so drastically changed in the dairy industry:
“For more than a decade, the United States has exported dairy products to other countries,” she said. “At the same time, because of technology, milk production in the United States and overseas has also increased. We’ve become reliant on trade with other countries that is no longer occurring at the same level. In addition, the lifestyle of the American family sitting down at the dinner table for a family meal (including a glass of milk) has affected consumption levels.”
Julie stated that 97 percent of Michigan’s farms are still family owned and operated, but farms will be getting larger with small operations leaving due to the current depressed dairy market.
“When our herd was established in 1977, there were 120 dairy farms in Jackson County – now we have about a dozen left,” she said.“Fifty years ago, a farmer fed 26 people; today’s farmer feeds, on average, 155 people.”
Julie then talked about potential solutions.
“Michigan has a $15 billion dairy industry. The impact of small family farms selling out will affect local communities, the state, and nation. I believe it’s best to have our food produced locally so dollars stay in our community providing more jobs in service, production, transportation, and manufacturing. National security and food safety must continue to be a priority as food being brought in from other countries makes Americans vulnerable on many levels.”
Julie added that the nation needs more legislative focus on the reduction of unnecessary regulations, relief of tax burden, plus opportunities to regain and expand foreign markets with the quality dairy product American farmers produce.
“Change is constant and inevitable,” she conceded. “Jeff and I are blessed with good health, a strong family, countless opportunities that have opened so many doors for us, and memories for our entire family that will last a lifetime.
“Now for the first time in 31 years of married life, I have to add milk to my grocery list. God bless the American farmer, the legacy they leave for the next generation, and the safe and abundant food they provide for our great nation!”