From my perspective, there is nothing particularly dynamic or unusual about this photo. As soon as I saw this scene, I knew I had to capture it. Driving back roads in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the contrasting, vibrant colors jumped out at me.
As soon as I exited my vehicle, the cows stopped their grazing and stood posed for the photo op as if they had done this several times before. They might have. Because right after I snapped this photograph, most of the Holsteins charged the fence to scare off the paparazzi. I obliged them.
A brief glance at Bobby Hershberger’s hands, and you know his profession. Crinkled, calloused, chapped, all the marks of a born-again dairy farmer.
Not yet 50, his thick fingers belie the rest of his body. His steely eyes still sparkle, even on a gray day in Ohio’s Amish country. His rutty smile foretells his honesty, integrity, and dedication to farm, family and faith.
Modest as the day is long, Hershberger loves dairy farming. He must. He has spent his entire life milking cows, plowing ground, seeding fields, mowing hay, picking corn, feeding livestock, caring for family, serving church and community.
On good days he only works eight hours or so. On really good days, he works twice that amount. Such is the life of a dedicated dairyman.
With his equally dedicated wife, Beth, at his side, Hershberger has made it all these years, even milking just 30 Holsteins, not exactly a mega farm. The Hershberger’s also operate Pine Loft Bed and Breakfast out of their home high on a hill that overlooks Hershberger’s home farm in Monroe Township’s Paint Valley west of Millersburg, the county seat in Holmes County.
“Tilling 110 acres and milking just 30 cows, there are Amish who have bigger farms,” he said humbly. The combination of his demeanor and his gentleness tells even a visitor that there is no malice in this man.
There are 40 years of thought, vision and compassion, however. Hershberger began milking cows with his entire family. He then went 50/50 with his father, and for the last 22 years, he has been on his own. And that has worn him down.
In his lifetime of milking, Hershberger has seen a gradual but significant transition in the dairy industry. When Hershberger started helping on the family farm, farming was slower paced. Cooperation out-muscled competition, and income was much more stable, thanks in part to government milk subsidies.
But much of that has changed. In the last decade or so, the change has become more an economic stampede of sorts. To put it simply, it’s either get run over by the big guys, or step out of the way.
As hard of a decision as it was, the Hershberger’s have chosen the latter. This summer they will sell their herd, effectively ending an agricultural aspect that has kept the couple close to home 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Holsteins, after all, don’t take vacations, so neither do their owners. As the couple looked ahead and weighed their options, the decision to stop milking became pretty clear. Day in and day out, milking cows is as grueling as it is satisfying.
“The decision really came down to this,” Bobby explained. “Either we had to expand or get out.” They loved their life on the farm. But they also knew that there was more to life than milking cows twice a day until you physically couldn’t do it any more.
“Farming is a challenge,” Bobby said. “The work is never the same from day to day because something always comes up.”
“I have enjoyed being able to work from home,” he reflected, “but when you milk, you are always at home.” Hershberger said after all these years he and his wife are simply tired.
Last year was an especially horrible year for farmers, according to Hershberger. In a way, that made their decision to stop milking much easier. Bobby saw staying in the dairy business as a sinking hole.
“With prices down, you work seven days a week and end up having nothing to show for it,” he said dejectedly.
Hershberger said that the only way to continue as a dairy farmer was to expand operations. To do that, he would have to purchase or rent more land, which would require him to buy bigger, better, and more expensive farm equipment and buildings, and hire farmhands. All of that meant borrowing more money, and that just wasn’t something he and Beth wanted to do at this stage in their lives.
Hershberger wanted to be clear that this was a personal decision. He doesn’t begrudge anyone. Dedicated farmer that he is, he wants the industry to succeed. But he sees the small farmer like himself being squeezed by the system more and more.
Hershberger is a practical man. “Being a dairy farmer has gone from a way of life to a way of making a living for big business,” he said.
With that, the strong, humble man’s voice tailed off, almost in a quiet relief of the decision he had made to stop milking cows. Hershberger said he would continue to farm the fields.
“But I will have to find a part-time job someplace to make up for the lost income,” he said realistically. “I feel at peace about my decision though.”
This story originally appeared in the Farm and Dairy tab of the Holmes County Bargain Hunter.