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South Dakota Recruits Big Dairies to Replace the Small Dairies It Squashes

The State of South Dakota and its favored mega-dairy industry are advertising to lure dairy operators to our fair state:

Two South Dakota dairy processors put up billboards in Tulare County, Calif., which has about 340,000 dairy cows, saying "All our cows in South Dakota are happy."

The billboards followed an earlier ad campaign that touted South Dakota as a better place for dairy business because, unlike California, it doesn't have quotas that limit milk production.

"We think South Dakota is a good place to milk cows," said state Agriculture Secretary Walter Bones. "Our state is one of those areas with tremendous untapped potential."

Earlier this year, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Dauggard went to California on a recruiting mission, telling reporters "we're on a cattle roundup. So if you're out there in the world of dairying and you're looking for a place to plant your dairy, South Dakota is open for business" [Rick Barrett, "South Dakota Looks to Lure Away Dairy Farmers," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2012.11.17].

We've recruited a number of foreign dairy operators:

The state's industry has persuaded European dairy farmers to move here, and it helped a Costa Rican dairy operation relocate to the prairie, although that farm folded after a short time.

Altogether, South Dakota has successfully recruited about 23 dairy farms in the last couple of years, most of them capable of handling 1,000 cows or more [Barrett, 2012.11.17].

Jon Davis, the Le Seuer, Minnesota-based owner of the big cheese factory in Lake Norden, says South Dakota has everything it needs for a dairy boom but cows:

“As I’ve said all along, the processing infrastructure is already invested in South Dakota, and now we just need the on-farm stuff to be invested in,” Davis said.

In other words, more cows are needed.

If the state had the cows, Davis said he would double the size of the Lake Norden facility that produces provolone, mozzarella, parmesan and romano cheeses [Barry Amundson, "S.D. Aims to Boost Dairy Cow Numbers," Tri-State Neighbor, ].

The South Dakota Department of Agriculture agrees and says everyone can benefit, even if more dairies would reduce the premium current dairy operators get for their milk:

To South Dakota farmers who are afraid of losing higher milk prices by having new producers moving in and would rather keep the status quo, [at publication time, SD Department of Agriculture propagandist Lucas] Lentsch and [SDSU professor Lloyd] Metzger said there’s a danger in those stances.

Lentsch said with a healthy dairy farm and manufacturing industry, “all boats rise with the tide.”

He said the economic impact of added livestock is “incredible.” For each dairy cow, it’s estimated to be $13,594.

“Whether it’s a 100- or a 1,000- or even a 10,000-cow dairy, there’s room at the table of opportunity for everyone in South Dakota,” Lentsch said [Amundson, 2012.06.01].

Room at the table for everyone... but not for the 800 small dairy operations that have gone out of business in South Dakota since the year 2000. In the 1980s, those small dairies had over 150,000 head of dairy cattle, compared to the 90,000 the South Dakota Department of Agriculture brags about now. The state Department of Agriculture is partly to blame: the big dairies it favors push those small dairies out of business. Somewhere there are 800 independent South Dakota dairy operators who could be producing milk for Davis and the other processors but who have left the industry. Having kicked out own people out of business, South Dakota now goes begging for Californians and Europeans to come boost our dairy numbers.

Room at the table for everyone... but not for raw milk producers. Producing raw milk is one way small dairies can claim a niche in the market and boost their profit margins. But the state outlaws the sale of raw milk at grocery stores; raw milk producers have to set up their own shops or deliver to sell directly to customers. (Imagine if the state put that same condition on Davis's cheese factory.) Small dairy operators who do brave the raw milk market face constant challenge from the state Department of Agriculture, which put Belle Fourche-based Black Hills Milk out of business for a week last month after finding harmful bacteria in one milk sample that was stored for an unusually long time before being tested by officials.

South Dakota officials will go to the mat for big food processors, but they seem less enthused about little guys like raw milk producers John and Dawn Habeck:

[Dawn] Habeck said she feels the Department of Agriculture is waging a war on raw milk around the country.

...Habeck mentioned [SD Dept. Ag Dairy chief Darwin] Kurtenbach specifically as “the one who's really got it in for raw milk (in South Dakota).” She alleged that Kurtenbach has spoken out publically against raw milk multiple times in the recent past — while serving as the Department of Agriculture's dairy program administrator.

Kurtenbach neither confirmed nor denied Habeck's allegation in a telephone interview with the Black Hills Pioneer.

“I'm not going to go into the benefits of raw milk versus pasteurized milk. South Dakota law says a producer can sell raw milk; it's legal to do that,” he said when questioned about Habeck's allegation ["Adam Hurlburt, "Raw Deal for Raw Milk?" Black Hills Pioneer, 2012.10.19].

But in the same interview, Kurtenbach goes out of his way to discourage consumers from buying the Habeck's product.

“If you go to Center for Disease Control's website you'll see that there's really no benefits to raw milk,” Kurtenbach said. “There's always inherent danger of consuming raw milk. The consumers that are consuming milk and milk products that are pasteurized are still safe and wholesome. The raw milk that's being sold in South Dakota has the potential to have pathogenic bacteria present and that can lead to sicknesses” [Hurlburt, 2012.10.19].

You will never hear a Department of Agriculture official mention any dangers about the mega-dairy industry that it favors. Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones, a big dairy operator himself, feigns ignorance in a public hearing when asked about the adverse economic and environmental effects demonstrated by giant diaries in Veblen, South Dakota. Evading taxes, violating permits, polluting the water, hiring illegal immigrants, cheating suppliers... not a peep of complaint from the Department of Agriculture. Hear complaints that a processed meat product contains yucky bits, and Pierre sends the lieutenant governor to stuff some of the product in question in his face. But find some bacteria in one aging sample of milk, and South Dakota will shut down small local producers and brand their product worthless and dangerous.

Room at the table for everyone... everyone, that is, who plays ball with the state's desire to curry favor with a few big developers and squeeze small operators completely out of the dairy industry.


  1. Roger Elgersma 2012.11.19

    All we have in South Dakota is cheap land because it does not rain much and cheap labor. Oh, we get Mexicans to do the milking. California has a much higher milk price. In the late seventies I went to the west coast and found that milking cows there had double the farm wages as here. That is how I got my money to start farming here myself. Wages high there, land cheap here. Well not cheap but compaired to there it sure was and is. Cows give more milk in the state of Washington were I was because the weather is better, cooler summers and warmer winters. They had the price, the climate and the irrigated alfalfa. Daugaard should go back to being a lawyer in Chicago or where ever he made his money. He built a new house the second year he farmed and then used that as a TV add on how frugal he was when he decided to run for gov.

  2. Les 2012.11.19

    Kurtenbach claims he would rather drink gasoline than the unpasteurized milk we grew up on. I have news for the over educated idiot, there is more than a few of us willing to buy you that gallon of petrol for your personal consumption.

  3. larry kurtz 2012.11.19

    raw milk certainly made me the man i am today.

  4. Richard Schriever 2012.11.19

    Had a different eperience in re: to California's milk prices Roger. For many years I bought my milk at a little "liquor store" next to the apraments I lived in in Costa Mesa. the price never changed $1.99/gal. When I made trips back to SD to see family - it was always around $3/gallon at the supermarkets. Milk was always something that was cheaper in Caifornia.

    Right now - today - I just checked the online shopping proces at the Von's that was close to where Ilived - which was always $1/gal. higher to the liquor store - even at the supermarkets - Cali milk is about 30-cents lower to today's price at Sunshine - right down the street from me.

    Or are you talking on-the-farm prices only? 'Cause it's higher volume - more gallons per labor hour - that enables those higher wages in Cali - not higher on-the-farm - OR in-the-store prices. It's industrialization of agriculture that enebales those higher wages. Not that I favor indistrialization of agriculture - just sayin' what it is.

  5. Richard Schriever 2012.11.19

    PS - I have consumed plenty of raw milk (and cream) myself - FWIW.

  6. Les 2012.11.19

    Leave it to Larry to deliver in one sentence what Kurtenbach couldn't say in a book. ;-) Looks like we rode the same wagon 'Larry'.

  7. larry kurtz 2012.11.19

    What does Minneota, Minnesota mean to you, 'Les?'

  8. Roger Elgersma 2012.11.19

    Richard, I was talking about the farmer to the creamery price of milk was about thirty percent higher in Washington state than it was in Minnesota in the last seventies.

  9. Tom Lawrence 2012.11.19

    Interesting points. Thanks for being such a Dairy Diarist, Mr. H.
    I think the decline in the number of farms, and people working on them, is a real factor.
    30 and more years ago, when I owned and milked cows for 12 years -- a helluva lot more milking than owning, as a teenager -- many small farms had a few cattle. We milked from 13 to 30.
    Many if not most neighbors also milked cows. It brought in a regular check, which was helpful for the families living on farms, who otherwise counted on the big checks at harvest time. Milking meant cash on a regular basis, and it was a very good thing for my family for most of a century.
    My older brother (who never cared for milking) and I left the farm, and my dad sold the cows as he neared 70. Hundreds of other farm families made the same choices.
    The small farmers quit because of long hours, hard work, and decline in family sizes. Cows must be milked twice a day (three and sometimes more now on the factory farms) and every day of the year. The decline has as much or more to do with a lifestyle choice as an economic issue.
    Still, I wonder if the state offered incentives to smaller operators, or offered young guys and gals a chance to open a small dairy, if more would spring up. Maybe so, maybe so.
    The increase in robo-milkers, which are common in Europe, also may make it more attractive. Today, farmers need not even step in the parlor, and there are at least two robo-dairies in the state.
    I know I'm too old to milk twice a day (even though Dad, at 92, tells me to consider it) ... but it has its charms. Independence, gentle, nice animals, life in the great SD outdoors, even in blizzards, and all the raw milk you can drink.
    You have to get used to it hot out of the animal as she stands nearby. It's an udderly different taste.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.20

    Tom, I certainly have no desire to be tied down by animals to my piece of ground. That's not the work for me.

    But the Habecks' are willing to do it. So are other small operators. More folks might not even need state incentives to take on that work; it might be enough if the state would just stop tilting the playing field in favor of the big guys. And as my friend Charlie Johnson like to point out, more small operators mean more families on the land putting more money in the local stores, more kids in the local school district, and more human capital in the community. That's an advantage of several small dairies that one large dairy cannot replicate.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.20

    And I had some of that hot-from-the-udder milk in Russia. Goat milk. Fine stuff.

  12. Les 2012.11.20

    People like Kurtenbach have been putting family farmers out of business for over forty years.
    They used to sell cream, eggs, beef halves, poultry and pork to restaurants and grocery stores in the 60's until these paltry folks over enforced bad laws.

    Try to buy a farm fresh egg, pork or poultry.

  13. Bree S. 2012.11.20

    I don't get the raw milk dilemma. Slap a huge warning on it, like they do with cigarettes and put it on the shelves. Something to the effect of "The federal government does not approve of you drinking this. We think it's bad for you." Then let the American consumer make their own decisions. Problem solved.

  14. John 2012.11.20

    It blows my mind why SD fails to encourage and incentivize the Hutterites to spread into NE SD and run dairies. They have the labor, know-how, accept mechanization, work-ethic, love being tied to the land and livestock. Seems like a fit.

  15. Les 2012.11.20

    How does that help family farms get past a mindless Barney Fife and get us the farm fresh products we demand John?

Comments are closed.