Some of my earliest memories from the 1950s are of black and white cows grazing in the fields, 10-gallon milk cans, and old chest type ice bank coolers. These coolers circulated ice cold water for milk storage. They were also great for cooling soft drinks and watermelons. By the early 1960s, farmers were required to have bulk milk tanks which replaced the milk cans.
All down our road on Highway 92 West of Bee Branch, little white concrete block dairy barns dotted the landscape. Most were flat barns with bucket milkers. Most farmers had 20 or 30 cows, all on pasture. Hutto Feed Mill in Damascus, owned by Ray Hutto, was the main place where people bought their feed. Mr. Hutto also had DeLaval dairy equipment and dairy supplies. Southern Farmer’s Association (SFA) stores soon came to Bee Branch and Clinton. The SFA stores supplied local dairies with everything they needed except dairy equipment.
The old South Side cotton gin on Highway 65 was still operating in the mid-1950s but cotton farming in the hills was disappearing. Dairy farming or chicken houses were about the only ways to make a living. To supplement our income, we grew cucumbers for the Atkins Pickle Plant and took them to the pickle grader at Clinton. I still hate picking cucumbers.
My parents, Carlos and Eula Wood, as well as a lot of our neighbors, sold cream milked by hand before they built their Grade A dairy barn in the mid 1950s. I remember my dad built the barn almost completely by himself including: mixing the mortar, laying the concrete blocks, and pouring the concrete floor. He hauled the gravel for the concrete from a nearby creek. Part of the old barn still stands. There was a working dairy farm on the old farmstead for over 50 years.
They sold their milk to a dairy cooperative called CAMPA which stands for Central Arkansas Milk Producers Association. Q.T. Linn of Damascus was an early board member. My dad always said the coop brought local farmers out of poverty. Later, regional coops including MPI, AMPI, MID AM, and DFA were formed to market local milk as a pool to get a better price. Several of these merged to form even larger coops.
Arkansas had a thriving dairy industry in the 1960s and 70s. Some old-timers have stated that there were as many as 1,500 dairies in Arkansas during the 1970s. These were concentrated in several counties including Faulkner, Van Buren, Conway, Benton, Washington, Madison, White, and Lonoke.
In the late 1980s, Mountaire Feed bought an existing feed mill at Damascus because there were 110 dairies within a 30 mile radius of the mill. Henry Caldwell of Caldwell Milling at Rosebud said that in 1995, his peak year, he sold feed to 145 dairies in this general area. Arkansas Department of Health records show that there were 833 dairies statewide in 1989 and by the year 2000 there were just 394 dairies still operating. Currently there are only 87 dairy farms in Arkansas and that number is still declining. Only one dairy farm remains in Van Buren County.
In 1991, Arkansas Dairy Cooperative Association (ADCA) was formed mainly because local dairy people felt like they were being ignored and taken advantage of by the larger coops. Damascus was chosen as the home base because of the concentration of farms in all directions. A two-story building was constructed that included a receiving station, truck washing facility, offices, and a lab for testing milk. Milk tanker trailers and trucks were purchased.
Dairyman Mike Phillips was the first to join the new coop followed by the Hutto brothers, Tommy and Sam. Many other farmers joined ADCA that first year, cancelling their contracts with the bigger coops. Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) tried to stop the growth of ADCA by taking all the local market, so our milk had to be transported out of state. DFA was able to do this because they signed exclusive full supply contracts with all the local milk plants.
When we signed with the new coop it was risky, putting our whole livelihood at stake. Most of us dairy farmers were very independent and felt like we were being bullied by the big coops. We were successful at overcoming these obstacles however, at least for a while. At ADCA’s peak in the late 1990s, we were shipping 16 tanker trucks of milk per day. Each tanker held 6,000 gallons of milk. ADCA currently ships one tanker daily.
The milk price is determined by a market administrator according to federal milk orders. U.S. Congressman Vic Snyder spoke at one of our meetings and said, “I was going to be a dairy farmer until I tried to figure my milk price, so I just became a doctor.”
Few people can explain exactly how to compute the price. Many of the rules in the milk orders were written in the Depression era, long before factory farms and transportation changed everything. These rules specify they are for the protection of a local supply of milk, but the big coops manipulated them to water down local farmers’ prices.
When dairy numbers started to decrease, businesses that supported dairies started to disappear also. In the 1980s no less than five or six feed companies supplied our area. That provided farmers with a lot of competition so they could negotiate the feed prices. Independent dairy equipment dealers were scattered around the state. Several refrigeration servicemen could work on milk tanks. Veterinarians specialized in dairy cows. There was even a State Extension dairyman. Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) was available in most areas to computerize individual dairy cow records.
Several state colleges had working dairy farms that taught courses on dairy science. There were several sire services that supplied semen for artificial insemination, providing farmers with the best bulls available. Nearly all of these necessary supports for local farmers have now disappeared.
Multiple factors have led to the decline of the dairy industry. High input costs like feed (especially corn), equipment, labor, aging farm population, government farm policy and regulations, land prices, and tax policy all have contributed along with low prices for our product.
It has been called the Wal-Mart factor, small farms competing against huge factory farms in the West. I know of one large farm in New Mexico that milks 20,000 cows and ships 12 tankers daily with its own trucks and silos. They buy corn by the barge load and whole boxcar loads of cottonseed.
Small farmers cannot compete on that scale with the system the way it is. An effort was made to start organic dairy farms in Arkansas but they failed for the same reasons as conventional farms. The state of Arkansas tried to slow the decline of dairy farms by supplementing milk prices on the farm for a while, but numbers continue to decline.
Milk is the single most regulated farm commodity. Farms, milking equipment, milk tanker trucks, and milk processing plants are inspected regularly by health department personnel and all milk is tested several times for antibiotics and bacteria before reaching the store. Milk is one of nature’s perfect foods and I hate to say this but you can be assured that it is safe even if it comes from a factory farm.
It is sad to drive around and see all the old barns in disrepair, many with the equipment still in them.
One dairy farm remains in Van Buren County to date, the James Hart Dairy near Formosa. There are only 80 plus left in the entire state. In the 1960s and ’70s many counties had more than that by themselves. I counted from my memory at least 75 in the southern part of the county over that period. Northern Faulkner County, eastern Conway County, along with Van Buren County, had several hundred.
A whole way of life is gone with these dairies, never to be experienced by future generations.