Jack McLeod looks over his pasture

Jack McLeod looks over his pasture

Dairy keeps economy flowing

While dairy farmers themselves might not be getting rich, they are making significant contributions to the local economy.

A tall glass of cold milk with a meal. A slice of tangy cheese in a sandwich.

These are the obvious benefits of dairy farming. What’s less known, though, is that mining the milky resource brown-eyed bovines so readily produce provides wide-scale economic benefits.

While dairy farmers themselves might not be getting rich, they are making significant contributions to the local economy.

About 90 per cent of what Salmon Arm organic dairy farmer Jack McLeod brings in as revenue goes out in expenses. This is fairly standard. A report from the Bank of Montreal’s B.C. division of agriculture shows, in 2010, the average retained earnings of dairy farmers in the region was five to eight per cent.

“Dairy farming is very capital intensive,” McLeod says. “We use a lot of local suppliers.”

For McLeod’s 300-cow operation, 140 of whom are in milk production at any given time, services used include veterinarians, electricians, plumbers, hoof trimmers and more.

In the Okanagan region, 96 dairy farms operate, located mostly in Salmon Arm, Armstrong and Enderby. In 2010, those 96 farms spent close to $61 million in the local economy. The multiplier factor translates conservatively into a $350 million injection.

A 2009 report on the dairy industry from Price Waterhouse Coopers shows that a local dairy farm writes out cheques to more than 60 different businesses in order to operate the farm in one calendar year.

Brad May, who owns and operates his 200-head dairy farm next to McLeod’s, is no exception. He estimates he writes cheques to about 40 different businesses per year, three-quarters of them local.

Like fluid milk, dairy farming is a way of life that flows from one generation to the next. May is a third-generation dairy farmer and a fourth-generation farmer. His youngest son, who’s eight, likes farming with his dad. His son’s plan at this point, smiles May, is to have a farm but to get someone else to run it so he can be a hockey player.

Jack McLeod is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. Farming binds his family together. His dad Ken and mom Heather live just down Foothill Road from him, his dad’s sister, next door, and his uncle, on bordering land to the northeast.

McLeod’s property also borders May’s, but must be separated by a 30-foot buffer because May’s is a conventional dairy farm while McLeod’s is organic.

May has embraced the latest technology for conventional farming, setting up his operation with a robotic milking machine. It means May has the luxury of sleeping in to 6 a.m. He can leave the farm most afternoons. If anything goes wrong with the machine, his text-savvy robotic employee sends him a message on his Blackberry. May can fix most problems via his cell phone.

Although the Harper government is dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board, May and McLeod support supply management in the dairy industry. What it means is that the BC Milk Marketing Board regulates B.C.’s milk production. To get into dairy farming, a farmer must purchase a quota. This ensures that the price dairy farmers get for their milk is relatively stable.

When you buy a litre of milk, it might come from a Salmon Arm dairy farm, it might not. Both May and McLeod must ship their milk to the Lower Mainland, where it goes to the marketing board and is then shipped to processing plants.

This area would probably need at least a couple more dairy farms, McLeod estimates, to support a local processing plant.

Although dairy farming is hard work, the men wouldn’t trade it. Says May: “You get a different view of life being a farmer, from working and taking care of your animals to working the land. And it’s a great place to raise a family.”

Emphasizes McLeod, “I love working outside, I love working with the animals. I just enjoy the lifestyle. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding.”

SEE RELATED STORY: Farmers urge support for agricultural area plans.