Weathered work boots crackle on icy crushed gravel as Fran Miron and his son Andrew trudge up to their newest pole barn. A group of masons on the far end pours a section of new concrete flooring while Fran’s brother, John, a retired electrician, oversees the process.
It’s early in an unseasonably cold November, and the Mirons are converting what was a “bedded pack” barn into a more advanced “free-stall” dairy dorm. As Fran explains the functional differences between the two (you’re going to have to look it up), Andrew notices something amiss.
“They definitely hit that tube down there,” Andrew declares as he passes through the barn’s shadow and gets a clearer view of the workers on the other end.
“He what?” Fran says.
“That’s not how that was,” Andrew continues, pointing to a protuberance of some sort, which he calls “the Sonotube.”
“No, it’s up in the air,” Fran says matter-of-factly. “Yeah. He said they had to pull it up in the air because your measurements were a little bit off.”
Father and son rib each other about measuring twice and boring your water-supply line once—dairy humor! But the barn conversion is no laughing matter. Fran, the fourth generation of Mirons to farm this 800-acre farm in Hugo, estimates the project will end up costing $150,000. And they’re investing that sum in an era when other family farms are taking out high-interest loans just to stay afloat.
As for what’s going wrong on small Minnesota dairies, the short answer is almost everything: feed-crop failures due to weather (likely caused by climate change), a trade war that’s shrinking markets, etc. Farming times are so tough that over a five-year span (starting in 2012), 1,100 Minnesota dairy farms closed, according to the USDA’s most recent farm census. And in the past year, the dairy busts have accelerated. One grim sign of the times: Nationwide, farmer suicides are spiking.
For those farmers like the Mirons who have somehow managed to maintain their 125-cow operation, there’s the Goliath market force of massive factory farms. Addressing economies of scale recently at the World Dairy Expo, in Wisconsin, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue offered little solace. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said.
That calculus must be especially tempting for Miron Dairy Farm, which lies just a half hour northeast of Minneapolis in Hugo. The city has seen its population swell in the past few decades from around 3,000 to 16,000. The real cash crop in the neighborhood appears to be housing.
“Back in 1976, when I took over the dairy, we had 268 dairy farms in Washington County, and today I think we’ve got eight,” Fran says. “There are still a few of us that believe we can farm in this area.”
Fran acknowledges that the family venture has recently experienced “some of the toughest times in my 46 years on the farm.” One of the secrets to the farm’s ability to employ Fran and two of his four sons, Andrew and Paul? Both Paul and Andrew’s wives maintain off-farm jobs, which provide (vaguely) affordable health insurance. Fran and his wife, Mary Ann, get their coverage through his full-time gig as a Washington County commissioner—and as Hugo’s mayor before that.
Eventually, Fran and Andrew invite us down to the house to warm up. Save for a couple of modest additions, it’s the same brick farmhouse that Fran’s great-grandfather built more than a century earlier. It’s where Fran grew up with his eight siblings, and where he and Mary Ann raised their six kids.
As the coffee percolates, we talk about the random business of the farm—things like how they sell the bulk of their milk to Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, in Wisconsin. Eventually, Fran suggests some cheese curds to go with our coffee. Yes to that.
When Mary Ann turns to the fridge, I realize that the cream in front of us is store bought, as is the empty gallon milk jug on the counter by the sink. Fran notices me noticing.
While the Miron Dairy (and its cows) may look the same, the business of farming keeps changing. “I grew up drinking raw milk, but our pediatrician told us that a child should be at least two years old before being exposed to raw milk,” says the lifelong dairy farmer. “I haven’t drank a glass of raw milk for ages.”