Three Nova Scotia dairy farms close in a month
Bonnie Sutherland, a dairy farmer in River John, says higher costs behind her decision
After 39 years of waking up long before the crack of dawn to milk 45 Holsteins, Bonnie Sutherland is calling it quits.
The River John dairy farmer is preparing to sell at auction everything that can be hauled off her farm, from tractors to water bowls to the giant hay silo adjacent to her cow barn.
The decision to close the farm, Sutherland said, was spurred by high diesel and feed prices and the prospect of taking out fresh loans to stay ahead. Her two children aren't interested in taking over.
"I cried for four days straight and then one morning I was milking and I looked around and said, 'What am I doing?'" Sutherland said. "I'm out here by myself at 2:30 a.m. in the morning.
"I'm 60 years old now so I said, 'It's time.' You just know when it's time."
Sutherland's farm is one of three dairy operations in Nova Scotia that ceased operation in April, an unusually high number in a month. Two of them were small farms.
"It's not a good year so I just figured I got out at a good time," Sutherland said. "Everybody this size is actually considering going out."
The dairy farm closings are part of a long-term trend that has seen the number of dairies in the province shrink from about 350 a decade ago to roughly 235 today.
At the same time, Nova Scotia is producing slightly more milk and the average farm has grown from roughly 55 cows to 80.
Brian Cameron, the general manager of Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia, notes closures have slowed in the last couple of years. While the farms that are left are larger, he said they remain family owned.
"That's healthy for the industry, to have a variety of farm sizes," he said.
"They're all family farms. Even the bigger ones that milk 300 or 400 cows, it's often a father and a couple of sons and a daughter that are working together."
Cameron said fuel, feed and fertilizer costs are pinching farmers, particularly at this time of year. Good workers are harder to find, he said, with many people heading out west for well paying jobs.
Sutherland sold her 51.7 kilograms of milk quota last month for well over $1 million. Her herd was sold the next day. But it's not all retirement money — Sutherland said a $700,000 debt is being paid off first.
"I won't have to work but I'm not going to be rich like everyone's going to think I am," she said. "They don't realize the debt a farm carries."