An empty milking parlor will be emptier on April 6, when dairyman Nate Elzinga’s cows are sold, a victim of hard times and harder choices. The Elzinga family includes Nate, holding Olive, 10 months old; front from left are Abel, 4, Henry, 9, Madison, Jenny and Evalyn, 6. Photo courtesy MMPA.
When a new day dawns for Nate Elzinga, he’ll carry pain into it.
Time will heal the wounds of April 6, the day he’ll force himself to watch as the cows to which he’s so devoted get loaded onto trailers and head for someone else’s dairy.
By the end of that day, Daybreak Dairy near Zeeland will no longer exist. The pain will.
“This wasn’t just my job, it was my passion,” he said mere days after an emotional announcement at the Michigan Milk Producer’s Association (MMPA) annual meeting. “My whole family was involved. We did everything together. We spent 12 to 16 hours a day together doing it, and we didn’t take days off.” He pauses momentarily to fend off the mourning.
The family’s decision to get out of the dairy business is much deeper than economics, although that’s a chronic sore that gets scratched open with every milk check. Nate’s grief is about family and loss, but it’s also for his cows, something that only other farmers who’ve faced such a day can understand in such depth.
“I don’t know how I’ll act when it’s over,” he said. “I told my family for the first couple weeks after the decision was made that they couldn’t make me be there for the sale. I’m still having a terrible time with it, but I’ll be there, even though it feels like my heart is being ripped out.”
There was no doubting that feeling at the MMPA meeting. Nate and wife Jenny were presented with the 2017 Young Dairy Cooperator’s award, an honor reserved for the youthful best of MMPA’s best. But at the end of a humorous and at times spontaneous presentation about their dairy, the bomb was dropped. The cows would be sold.
“I was dreading doing that at the meeting, but afterward, I felt better,” Nate said. “A lot of other people are in the same boat, even though it may seem like a problem that’s unique to you. But there are other people you can lean on, and I’m not talking about financially. You don’t have to handle everything yourself.”
IMPACT ON FAMILY
The Elzingas will fulfil their duties of promoting dairy around the country, because it’s what people do when they understand what it means to face reality and move on.
Reality, for the couple and their five young potential future farmers, though, will bring a different kind of day, one that at this point seems destined to dawn with clouds and a threat of rain.
“Jenny is torn up too,” Nate said. “She and I both wanted to keep going. She loves it on the farm because she knows that there are life lessons our kids can only learn on the farm. These days we feel that we need to teach them things that counteract what the world is teaching them, and how do you do that without the animals? The kids have their pet cows and calves, and as we talk about moving, that almost doesn’t bother them as much as not having animals around. My oldest daughter is very concerned about the calves.”
Concern for the dairy industry, however, will not bring Nate and family to a new day of joy on the farm. And while he retains hope that he can milk cows again someday, for now, Nate will begin a job as a dairy nutritionist with Caledonia Farmers Elevator.
“I guess I’m finding some peace with the fact that I will still be able to do some parts of dairying that I love, even if it’s with other people’s cows,” he said.
If there is consolation for other local dairymen at a similar crossroad as Nate begins his new day, it’s that he remains passionate about animal nutrition, which bleeds into human nutrition, and that’s where he sees a new sunrise with promise.
“For now, I’ll do the best job I can for the industry in the dairy nutrition side,” he said. “I’ll also train people how to use parlor software to be successful in monitoring cows. I still have a passion for nutrition, and I’ve been educating myself on human nutrition.”
A FUTURE TOO LATE?
Nate said he believes that’s where dairy’s future lies, but it must be done correctly.
“I am positive about the industry long-term,” he said. “I’m frustrated in the short term when I see all the consolidation and how far and fast it’s going. I don’t think our leaders realize what’s really happening, and by the time they get it, I fear it may be too late.”
A way to bring relief for the burdens dairy farmers face today, he said, is for society to stop following fad diets and understand the role dairy plays in human nutrition.
“So many people are into fad diets, and I think dairy will play a key role in helping people eat to be fit rather than to be popular,” he said. “Whole milk will be popular again with the right message.”
Not only does that mean new and innovative promotions, it means getting the broader economic message into the heads of the public and its leaders.
“The message needs to get to the people at the top,” Nate said. “I don’t think the legislature, the president or their advisors realize how quickly the landscape is changing and how the games they play at the top affect us as farmers. Doors are closing at a rapid pace, and if it keeps going like it is, the landscape will not be recognizable when we’re done.”
Leaders, he said, seem to lack a basic understanding of conditions on America’s farms.
“I went to a (farmers) legislative breakfast, and one politician was ranting and raving about tax reform, and that’s great,” he said. “I agree that we shouldn’t be wasteful with taxpayer dollars, but during the last couple years, taxes are the last thing I worry about. What concerns me a lot more is the cost of milk production going up. Labor costs are up, and it’s harder than ever to find help.
“They’re playing games with trade, not enforcing labeling laws and allowing competition from nut juice. The timing of it all is terrible, but yet we’re still playing the tariff and trade war games with the partners who buy our stuff. How do you think they’re going to retaliate? This is not a policy that affects government. It’s about human beings. I don’t think anybody milks cows to get rich, and that applies to other agriculture too. We do it because it’s a way of life that we like, and because we want to raise our kids to like it too.”
With a new day coming for Nate and his family, the pain will not lead to bitterness, even though some others can’t understand Nate’s passion during bitter economic times.
“Some people can’t understand why I want to continue with something that, in their opinion, has treated me so badly,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to them that we’re still excited about farming and want to continue it.”
Nate still holds hope for the future, however. Perhaps someday he and Jenny will be able to start a new dairy, complete with a new genetic base and technology that makes the farm more efficient and profitable.
If that day dawns, Nate will carry his experience, education, expertise and, hopefully, his family into it. Until then, however, he must endure and wait for time to ease his grief and heal his wounds.
“April 6 will be a painful day,” he said.