Sustainable Dairy at Scale
The term “sustainable agriculture” often leads to images of smaller and more local farming systems. While I believe these serve as one piece of a sustainable food system, these systems are a very small part of the puzzle.
Opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of size and distance does NOT equate to the opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of sustainability.
Take the example of McCarty Family Farms. The McCartys sold their small dairy in Pennsylvania to move out to Western Kansas. They were lured to the area by economic development organizations wanting more dairies.
Why do rural economic development groups try to recruit dairies?
“Dairy is inherently labor-intensive” says Ken McCarty. “It provides a very strong and consistent tax base. Typically, it’s bringing in dollars from outside of the community and dispersing them within the local community. So dairy, from an economic development point of view, is very attractive to rural america economic development groups and those groups helped us explore Western Kansas.”
Ken is one of three brothers who work with their parents to grow the Western Kansas-based dairy operation.
The move from Pennsylvania has lead to an expansion to now four dairy locations and over 20,000 head of cattle. What’s most impressive to me is not the size of operation, but how that scale allows them to carryout their commitment to sustainability.
Commitment to Sustainability
A fundamental yet often overlooked aspect of sustainability is economic. This is the very reason the McCarty family was enticed to Western Kansas. Their dairies hire employees, those employees have families and incomes to spend. The revenues from the dairy come in from out of the area and are often spent locally.
Another aspect of economic sustainability is to be able to sustain a profitable business. The McCartys expanded to multiple sites as opposed to just growing one massive operation. This lowers their risk of weather or disease events having a negative impact on their cattle and their business.
The family also realized that becoming larger and more efficient was only part of the equation. They also needed a way to grow closer to their end consumer. In 2010, they were presented with the opportunity to do just that. Danon Yogurt was looking for dairies to partner with for a new program. Ken explains how it works for them:
“(The) relationship with Danon is relatively unique for the U.S. dairy industry. We’re what’s in a direct-supply cost-plus model where in order to limit the volatility that they face but also some of the volatility that we face, we came to an agreement where we have a guaranteed margin above and beyond our cost of production that they feel is acceptable that that we feel is acceptable. We always liken it to baseball. We grew up playing Little League baseball in northeastern Pennsylvania. With the exception my one brother David, none of us were home run hitters, but we always got on base. Singles and doubles get you into the Hall of Fame. What we can’t afford is strikeouts. Ultimately we just want to be here tomorrow and we figure if we can live to fight another day, through efficiency and increases in productivity and by constantly pursuing value-added offerings that enhance our relationship with our customer enhance the experience of the consumer that that our business will hopefully be be viable for my kids.”
This arrangement not only leads to economic stability, but also the chance for great environmental sustainability. Concerned about draw down of the Ogallala Aquifer, their water source, they developed a plan to use less water.
The plan was to develop an evaporative milk condensing plant at one of their dairies in Rexford, Kansas. This way they could reduce the amount of fluid (water) shipped out of the area by about 2/3.
“All of the milk that’s produced on McCarty dairies flows into that plant either from the bulk tank or via semi-trailer” explains Ken McCarty. ‘It’s separated into the cream and the skin portion. Both of those products are pasteurized. Then the skin portion is condensed through an evaporation process essentially from three semi-loads down to one. We pull a tremendous amount of the water out of that product. That water then is reused on our own farm.”
In addition to the water conservation, this process reduces shipping costs by about 75%. This process was made possible because the McCartys had the scale to both partner with Danon, and to supply enough milk to a plant like this. Likely if they were four separate dairies they would each be paying the costs to ship all of that raw milk (and water) out of the area.
Farm and Food Partnerships
Farmers and food companies don’t always seem to be on the same page. One could make the argument that large food manufacturers serve as a veiled curtain separating producer from consumer.
As a result, food companies adapt to the changing preferences of their consumer. Those preferences are often based on a fundamental misunderstanding of farming. It can be a vicious cycle that frustrates all involved.
This partnership between the McCartys and Danon is pretty unique. But it could be a sign of things to come for the future of agriculture.
McCarty Family Farms cares about operating a profitable business, investing in rural economies, and maintaining the sustainability of their land and their livelihood.
Danon cares about operating a profitable business, adapting to the preferences of their customer, knowing where their products came from, having a say in how their produced, and making their supply chain as sustainable as possible.
These desires do not have to be at odds if both sides learn to trust each other and work collaboratively. This way, when consumer preferences change, farmers get insight into the feedback and food companies better understand the capabilities of their own supply chains.
The McCartys give us an example of what’s possible in modern agriculture. They have built an economic foundation in these rural communities, diversified their business across multiple counties, formed a partnership to get closer to the consumer, and found innovative ways to lower the environmental impact of food production.
Small farms and local farms are great, and can be very sustainable in many ways. But I hope you’ll keep the McCarty’s story in mind the next time you hear or see something negative about large scale farms. The implication that they are all corporate and less sustainable is simply not universally true.