Death of the Dairy Farm: Part 1

By: Joe Brown
By: Joe Brown

All that's left of Jimmy Fite's dairy are empty barns and happy memories. Now 70, Fite started his dairy in Madison County in 1959. And back then, things were a whole lot different.

"Well it was very profitable business at the time," Fite said. "Most profitable farming business there was."

In fact, this area was once home to a herd of family dairies. According to the Office of State Ag Statistics, there were between 200 and 300 dairies in the Brazos Valley in the 60s and 70s. And for those who grew up around the dairy business, it was more than a living, it was a lifestyle.

But things began to change for family dairies in the mid-to-late 80s. Time and technology were partly responsible. But there were other factors.

"Land values are one thing," said Michael Tomaszewski with the Texas A&M Dairy Sciences Department. "The economy within the production of agriculture, especially milk production, there's not that much money to be made so in order to make a living, you've got to get larger."

And as that "bigger is better" mentality began to take hold, one by one, Brazos Valley dairy farmers found it harder and harder to stay afloat.

"Well, we were losing anywhere from $4,000-6,000-a-month," said Fite.

"The same thing is happening in the dairy industry that's happened in the poultry industry, that's happened in the hog industry," said Tomaszewski. "We've gone to these larger, more confined type systems because of the financial returns and that's the only way you can get them."

Fite experienced first hand the changing economics of dairy farming. After three years of declining profits, he made one of the hardest decisions of his life. Still, walking away from a family business you built with your own hands, isn't easy.

"Yes, in 40 years, it gets to be like a habit," Fite said.

Fite held out as long as he could. But finally in 2000, the Fite dairy, the last remaining dairy in Madison County, called it quits.

Looking back today, Fite says for him, rising labor costs and environmental regulations were the final nails in the coffin. But he also says people have changed.

"Young people expect more out of life than dairying," he said, "because it's seven days and seven nights. So I feel like that's it. And I feel like the reason we lost our dairies was the age of the dairyman."

But even so, Fite says he has fond memories of the dairy. It provided his family a good living and it helped him instill important values in his children. For 40 years it was his life, and today, he has no regrets.


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