This week Dutch dairy farmers who are considering relocating are visiting Northern Iowa communities. Their trip is part of a broad and ambitious effort to redevelop the dairy industry in a 17 county region of the state.
The area's residents from all walks of life have come together, first to define, then to implement a strategy to regenerate a dairy industry that once formed the backbone of the region's economy. As Market To Market producer Nancy Crowfoot explains the core value of the economic development mission is the "family-sized" dairy farm.
Northeast Iowa is rolling hills … limestone bluffs … and the pastoral settings of farmland that artist Grant Wood immortalized in the 1930s.
Around that decade of the ‘30s and a little earlier, this part of the state was flush in dairy farms. Six decades later, while still home to 72% of the state's dairy cattle … the numbers have shrunk.
People here have watched the disappearance of the small family dairy and the growth of milk production nationwide by larger commercial operations. For northeast Iowa, it was time to either accept that trend … or try to stop it.
Nick Rolling, dairy farmer, Waterville, Iowa: "We certainly don't believe that the investor-type dairy is what we want to deal with over in this part of the country. We want the owners to be our neighbors and a part of the community."
Paul Brown, Iowa State University Extension:"So, we decided to come together to look at ways to kind of maybe drive the stake in the ground a little bit and say that dairy is a critically important asset to the region, an important industry and how can we look at ways to strengthen it for the families who have been a part of that industry for the long-term in this region and have helped develop that industry here."
With the belief that the area could direct its own dairy destiny … Paul Brown, a University Area Extension Director, and the president of a local community college, pulled together farmers, community and business leaders, and bankers. They formed the non-profit Northeast Iowa Community-Based Dairy Initiative.
The grassroots group raised funds from a variety of sources. Local residents and businesses in a 17-county area donated more than $600,000. And six area banks made loans totaling $3.2 (M) million dollars.
Within 18-months time, the result was a $4.5 (M) million dollar venture. It included a 143 acre farm, a 17,000 square foot education facility and a 150-cow milking operation. Located in Calmar, Iowa, the operation is owned and managed by farmers in partnership with Iowa State University and the Northeast Iowa Community College.
Rob Denson, President, Northeast Iowa Community College: "We do education here, we do continuing education, we do applied research which is the kind of research farmers can take from here right to their barn."
From experimenting with a manure digester to creating a "relief milking" program ... the mission of the Northeast Iowa Community-Based Dairy Foundation is to make any sized family dairy operation a viable career choice.
The goal is to also recruit and train the next generation of farmers. In addition to class work, the 60 students a year get literally hands-on training … from bovine hoof care … to operating a high-tech, 150-cow milking parlor … which earns about $60,000 a month in milk sales.
For local dairy-dependent industries, the hope is the educational efforts will yield more people who want to milk cows in northeast Iowa.
Mark Nielsen, President, Wapsie Valley Creamery Inc., Independence, Iowa: "Most of our milk kind of comes from along the Mississippi River.
And we definitely would like to pick up milk within a 50 mile radius of the plant instead of going 100 miles and I think it's very important as the cost of fuel goes up."
The economic benefit goes beyond fuel costs and the farm sector.
The impact is also felt on Main Street, says Jacque Hahn, the economic development director for Howard County, Iowa.
Jacque Hahn, Howard County Economic Development Director: "Dairy dollars tend to stay more local because of the fact that they aren't able to travel very far from their facility to do their shopping and spend their dollars.
And the fact that the dairy dollar itself turns over roughly about two-and-a-half times within a radius in which it's located makes it a very important entity of the agriculture industry."
With so much emphasis on the economic need to preserve and grow the dairy industry in northeast Iowa, the pressure is on for the foundation to succeed. And there is already talk by some to create at least one new program.
While the high tech glitz of the milking parlor may be a draw for students, Foundation president Nick Rolling wants to include a less expensive dairy alternative that young people just starting out can afford… an operation similar to his own.
Nick Rolling, Dairy Farmer, Waterville, Iowa: "The grazing low-input facility I think is the biggest monkey on the back of the dairy foundation currently, that we have not put that facility in place and we've been committed to doing that since the beginning. and its getting to be a number of years and I think we're a little mud in our eye on that one."
Willis Hansen, President, State Bank of Lawler:
"I think it's too soon at this point. Maybe next year."
Willis Hansen, President of the State Bank in Lawler, Iowa is cautious about increasing the Foundation's already $2.8 (M) million dollar debt. His bank's portion of the loan is $600,000. And it is estimated it would take another $250,000 to rework the Foundation's current livestock handling situation and add an 80-cow rotational grazing program.
Willis Hansen, State Bank of Lawler
"They've only had cows in there for a couple of years. And some of the parts of the project were not completed until last year either, so I think it's a little soon."
Having disagreements and discussions are just part of the process in operating a facility with so many players involved. But all seem to agree on one thing: The project would not have gotten off the ground at all without the commitment and dedication of each of those players.
Rob Denson, President, Northeast Iowa Community College: "From the time we first had the first discussion dreaming about what this could be and the time we had 5,000 people here and we cut the ribbon opening it, was about 18 months. That does not happen in government or education."
Paul Brown, Iowa State University Extension: "But the thing that really has driven it would be the local dairy farmers, the industry people, community leaders and so forth that said, ‘yes indeed. Let's make a difference'."
For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.