Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 8, 2013

Dairy farmer goes against grain, succeeds


— TRAVERSE CITY — Dairy farmer Bob Plummer doesn’t trouble himself with the status of the Farm Bill in Washington these days. He doesn’t have to.

“I withdrew from the system years ago,” Plummer said. “I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Plummer is among several northern Michigan farmers who reject the traditional agricultural system and its world of subsidies, crop insurance and big corporations paying farmers pennies on the dollar for product.

Plummer decided about three years ago to shun it all. Instead, he chose to milk his 22 cows at the farmstead on North Long Lake Road in Grand Traverse County, process and bottle his milk on-site, and sell the milk at local outlets.

“I don’t worry about the Farm Bill because I don’t sell my milk to the big companies,” Plummer said. “It’s a great feeling.”

Others worry about the Farm Bill, or lack thereof. If a new Farm Bill or an extension isn’t passed by January, dairy prices could skyrocket and milk could leap to $8 a gallon. In Benzie County, near Frankfort, farmers Paul and Sharron May agree with Plummer; they sell their goods locally in what Sharron May refers to as the “parallel farming economy.”

The Mays sell lamb, beef, eggs and other fresh products at a single local store.

They also sell directly to customers.

“There are a lot of us in the parallel ag economy who aren’t dependent on the Farm Bill,” Sharron May said. “Everyone that I know who’s farming, using the new ways of farming ... it’s because of the Farm Bill. Because of the system, a parallel economy has had to be created.”

Plummer took complete control of his operation from start to finish. He cut out milk processing corporations by building a processing and bottling facility at the farm. He knew he made the right decision, based on his former processor’s sour reaction.

“I’d milked for them for 20 years, and the day I sold my own first bottle of milk, they sent me a letter saying they’d no longer pick me up after 20 years and that they no longer could verify the quality of my milk,” Plummer said.

Plummer said he’s thriving while the handful of small dairy farmers still afloat fight tooth and nail for survival. He understands their plight: before he processed his own milk he had to do masonry work during the day and milk cows at night to survive.

Plummer refuses to buy crop insurance, and said he’s never needed it. If he can’t produce enough corn to feed his cows on his 75 acres, he buys it. He accepts the risks that accompany farming, he said.

“I’m as anti-system as you can get,” Plummer said. “We pulled away three years ago, and we are making more money now than we ever did. There’s this whole racket involved in it. I had people coming to my barn telling me you can do this you can’t do that.

“Stop depending on the government,” he said. “You are going to have to go with what you got. Make it on what you’ve got.”