As my brother and I pushed against the chilly breeze while walking across the muddy pathway toward the tent and auction trailer, a sudden sense of sadness came over me.
We joined the others who were strolling in their boots among the cows and beside the barns that had been cleaned out. This was the final part of a 400-cow dairy herd dispersal in Jefferson, Maryland.
As the time drew near for the auction to begin, buyers and onlookers filled the tent. It was standing room only around the makeshift show ring. The auctioneers read aloud the terms, and what came next was truly moving and, for me, heartbreaking.
The Tucker family, the owners of Mid-View Farm, filed in and filled some of the front-row seats as Becca Tucker, fifth generation dairy farmer and appointed spokesperson for the family, walked across the clean shavings and took the microphone in hand. She introduced her 91-year-old grandmother, Georgia, who still lives in the farmhouse on site. She went down the line naming her mother, Sandy, aunt, sister-in-law and others, finally getting to her brother and farm partner, Justin.
I have to hand it to Becca. She choked up only briefly when she told the crowd that clearly missing this day was her father, Stanley, who succumbed to cancer on Dec. 30 after a 10-year battle.
With the family patriarch and farm owner gone and the dairy industry in a long-term slump, the family made the difficult choice to sell. Becca quickly pulled it together and remained surprisingly upbeat as she proudly told the potential buyers about their award-winning herd.
Sitting there and blinking back tears myself, the somber scene really drove home the realization that this could just as easily be my family in this position. Many parallels can be drawn from the Tuckers and so many farm families struggling to stay afloat in an industry that has been in decline for years. Increasing numbers of advertised herd dispersals and “For Sale” signs posted at the end of farm lanes make me wonder if, a decade from now, the dairy industry will look anything like we know it today.
The Tucker family shipped to Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative for 96 years and were recognized twice — in 2006 and again in 2017 — as the cooperative’s top-quality herd, producing more than 3 million pounds of milk. In its advertisement, the auction company stated, “You will be amazed when you walk through this herd. Udders, feet and legs are superb. One of the finest herds we have ever sold.”
That’s a legacy the Tucker family can be proud of, and it’s something they worked hard for.
Though I never met Stanley “Stan” Tucker, I couldn’t help but think that maybe it was just as well he wasn’t present that day to watch his cows sell, one by one. I can imagine he would be just as frustrated as the rest of us about the struggling dairy industry and upset that his two children were forced to make a business decision that ultimately ended a family history in dairy farming. It was one of the oldest dairies in Maryland.
After Becca exited the show ring and the first cow entered through the gate, the atmosphere quickly changed from solemn to energized. The auctioneer set the tone, boasting loudly, “It’s a buyer’s market.”
Those words struck me. Here we were, a whole tent full of people plus online buyers buzzing in on a laptop computer, gaining from somebody else’s loss.
In a short time, the herd was scattered all over — Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and Canada, to name a few destinations.
My brother and I were buyer number seven at the auction that day. Urged by our accountant to milk some more cows to make cash flow better, we decided to drive the two-and-a-half hours to check out the sale because the Tuckers’ herd is a lot like ours. Their cows are accustomed to a freestall barn and a Westfalia parallel milking parlor — almost identical to ours. We believed their cows would transition well into our farm and hopefully adjust quickly.
We were fortunate enough to purchase 14 really nice looking pregnant 2-year-olds. We had lined up a trucker and they were loaded up and delivered to us at midnight that same day. We had a segregated area all ready for them with fresh feed, clean water and thick bedding to welcome them to their new home.
The next day, our new additions were fitted with collar responders and entered into our computer system. They were led into our milking parlor and walked in calmly, never missing a beat. They stood there, chewing their cuds, as they were relieved of the pressure from not being milked out for longer than they were used to. They were introduced to their group with about 150 others in the same age range and quickly headed to the feed bunk.
My brother has kept a close eye on them since they joined our herd and has been overjoyed with their progress and ease at how they’ve adapted.
It may be a small consolation to them, but I want the Tucker family to know that 14 of their animals are doing superbly and will be well taken care of throughout their lifetimes as will their offspring. We are happy to have them and feel fortunate to have been able to augment our herd with their quality animals.
The industry has lost a good dairy farmer in Stan, and a good dairy farm family in the Tuckers. But their hard work and dedication over the years will maybe help us and other farm families who purchased their animals come out on top and survive this volatile and demanding industry.
And maybe, just maybe, things will bounce back and dairying won’t look so different after all.