Dairy stalwarts tend Crawford family farm

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Tender and golden: The late summer light is reflected in the hay on the barn floor and in the coats of the heifers raised by Kenneth Crawford and his family.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

At home: Kenneth Crawford, a longtime farmer in East Berne, talks about his love for working on a dairy farm throughout his life. A back injury stopped his operation in 2010, but the 78-year-old still works many hayfields and raises dairy cows for auction. 

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Dairyman: Corbin Repscher has a fascination with his grandfather’s life’s work at a diary farm. The young Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate says he wants to eventually have a milking operation and works in the hay fields with his grandfather, Kenneth Crawford, while others his age are relaxing on the lake.

EAST BERNE — The ground is frozen solid now on the Crawford farm in the Helderbergs. The first cut of hay in late summer is a distant memory but the challenges that come with small family farms remain.

The sound of country radio and rustling hay accompanied Kenneth Crawford as he recounted the trials of dairy farming, sitting on a square bale after morning chores inside his barn.

“Nineteen-seventy-nine was my best year,” said Crawford, who is 78, as heifers chewed the straw at his feet. “Jimmy Carter was in as president. I was going to have quite a net income, so I bought a manure spreader and a pickup truck in ’79.”

Just three years ago, Crawford was a dairy farmer producing milk, as he has been most of his life. He and his brother drove horses on their father’s farm in Reidsville. After graduating from Berne-Knox, Crawford encouraged his father to expand to their current Long Road farm in East Berne.

But in 2010, Crawford stopped milking cows after he fell off of a silo and broke his back. Now, he raises milking cows to sell to dairy farms, his income still tied to the industry.

“I love it, and I can’t stop,” said Crawford. “After 56 years, I can’t stop working. I couldn’t sit in a chair or go on a trip. I wouldn’t be a bit interested in going on a trip.” He does like to go to auctions.

Crawford’s brother, Earnest, and his grandson, Corbin Repscher, stood inside the barn, listening. They and Crawford’s son, Kenneth, a welding supplies salesman, help the farm, which, Crawford said, had a net loss of $55,000 in 2011, then $35,000 the following year.

“Without my son’s paycheck on Airgas, we probably wouldn’t last too long,” said Crawford. “You have to have outside income. Most dairy farmers, usually their wife works to supplement.”

Repscher, who graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo in 2011, wants to continue on the dairy farm. He travels to farm bazaars and talks to salespeople about the latest agricultural equipment. Repscher said he’s starting to put money away for when he can invest in a farm.

“I want to milk cows,” said Repscher, telling his dream of eventually owning a dairy farm with a milking parlor like the one used by a friend’s family.

“They can milk 120 faster than we could milk 25 here,” said Crawford.  But the fluctuation of milk prices over time made earning a livable income from the farm alone difficult. Crawford says the milk industry was good for 25 years.

“When Ronny Reagan got in, 1980, everybody said he was good for the country, and he probably was, but he wasn’t good for the dairy farmer,” said Crawford.

The safety nets used to regulate milk markets are part of the farm bill, reauthorized roughly every five years and currently being negotiated in Congress.

The Milk Income Loss Contract program pays farmers when the price of milk drops below a set price. The program expired at the end of September and can’t begin again without legislation.

“You know how much milk they’re giving, you know how much milk check you’re going to get,” Crawford said of his pleasure on the farm. “If you work for somebody else, you get a wage. They pay you so much and it’s just a job, milking cow after cow.”

Crawford warns Repscher that he should have a separate job to supplement his work on the farm.

“That’s why I tell my kids, ‘You can’t work all the time. You have to enjoy yourself along the way. Because, if you don’t, you ain’t going to when you get older.’ My father was the same way.”

Crawford’s father didn’t want to raise cows, but chickens. Crawford wonders how such an operation could survive today, noting dairies prefer larger farms because it saves money for transportation and promises larger quantities. Crawford said he’s always hoping milk prices will increase or remain at profitable levels.

The Crawford farm is about 65 acres, but he and Repscher spend their summers bringing more money to the farm by work about 400 acres of hayfields at 14 other farms.

“Where dairy farmers went out of business, they want their fields kept clean,” said Crawford. He said his family doesn’t want him, at his age, unloading bales, though his brother works separate hay fields with his hands and a truck.

“If you like it enough, then it’s not that big of a deal,” Repscher said of the economic risk of dairy farming.

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