Milk hauler has witnessed decline of county dairies

As Clinton Hamm, 64, enters the final years of his 40-year career as a milk-truck driver, he knows he?s witnessing the final decades of an era.

The Kansas dairy farms where he picks up milk are disappearing, along with much of the culture and independent work ethic of the people who ran them.

Most dairy farmers are past 50 years old, a good many of them past 60, Hamm said.

When he talks to their sons, even the ones working with parents on the dairy farm, they tell him, ?When Dad passes away, we?ll get rid of this. There?s no profit left to it. You work 24/7. It?s tough.?

Hamm knows if the money was there, many of these dairymen would hang on to their way of life. But there?s little financial reward.

?I?ve seen a lot of dairies come and go,? he said.

Hamm grew up in Hillsboro and was introduced to running a milk route in the 1960s when he helped his father, Ted, pick up 10-gallon cans of milk in a two-ton box truck that opened on three sides.

Today he drives a 6,000-gallon tanker.

His uncles, Harry, deceased, and Duane, also hauled milk. Ted and Clinton?s mother, Ruth, have passed away.

Clinton lives in Newton with his wife, Maxine, although he still hauls milk into Hillsboro for Gorges Dairy.

The milk has basically always gone to the same plant at the north end of Hillsboro, although the facilities and ownership have varied, first to Tip Top Dairy, then to Associated Milk Producers Inc., and then to Dairy Farmers of America, which withdrew its operation in 1999.

He?s seen the Hillsboro plant make butter, cheese and ice cream, but all of that is gone now.

?They even delivered bottled milk,? he said. ?At one time, they dried and bagged whey. A lot of it went to feed (livestock) in Nebraska.?

When Hamm started, most of the milk he picked up came from Marion County, with some stops in Dickinson County.

But the number of dairies has declined to where one day last week found him stopping at seven dairies on a 10-hour route of more than 300 miles in Marion, Dickinson, Geary, Morris and Lyon counties.

?Tomorrow I?ll pick up 10 dairies in Marion, McPherson and Dickinson counties,? he said.

When he arrives at the dairy, Hamm still has to keep his daily activity log, and he tests the load of milk for antibiotics?something, which if present, would require that he dispose of the load. Gorges Dairy doesn?t serve farms that use hormone substances to increase production.

Hamm said he has to keep to his schedule, but he still enjoys the uniqueness of every farm, and he likes to visit with the dairymen he serves when he and they have time.

In the old days, the breeds of dairy cattle varied more from the predominant Holstein breed in today?s dairies.

Hamm said still hauls from one dairy with Brown Swiss south of Hillsboro, one with Jerseys south of Lincolnville, and one with Guernseys at Canton.

?There?s a lot of mixed breeds now, too,? he said.

When Hamm started, most of the milk came from Grade B dairies, and the milk was used for cheese. But state and federal requirements forced dairies to upgrade to Grade A milk, which can be used for beverage, too, and to change from cans to bigger bulk facilities.

Hamm said those requirements prompted a number of the small dairies?with a herd of maybe 15 or 20 head?to get out of the business because of transition costs.

Hamm said he still has a few small dairies, but most fall in a range of 30 to 200 cows. That contrasts with the cow herds in western Kansas, which has become the new geographic center of the dairy industry in Kansas because of the cheap labor there. Herds there average 700 to 2,000 cows, he said.

According the U.S. Depart?ment of Agriculture, Kansas has 490 dairy farms that carry 113,000 cows. Nationally, the 50 states combine for 86,310 dairy farms with an average 105 cows per herd.

The top five dairy states in order are California, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

The decline in dairy farms continues, according to USDA, and the ones that remain are growing larger.

USDA confirms an observation by Hamm that compared to other types of farming, the dairy farm family has to rely heavily on the farm, and not on outside jobs, for its income.

?And the money just isn?t there anymore,? Hamm said.

At the same time, Hamm said he wants to keep picking up milk as long as there are dairies in the area.

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