The Hoffners get out of the dairy business

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 11, 2009

By Katie Scarvey
CLEVELAND ó An auction team from Jersey Marketing Services in Ohio kept things moving along in the red and white striped tent last Saturday at Amity Hill Farm. An auctioneer wheedled for bids while cows circled the auction ring, prodded gently by handlers.
Below the ring, several spotters scanned the faces in the crowd, alert to any raised hand or nodding head.
Carhartt-clad auction-goers sat in folding chairs, studying sale catalogs, analyzing milking and calving data while munching pork sandwiches and drinking coffee.
Auctions can be festive events, but the mood of the Hoffner family ó who owned most of the livestock being sold ó was more reflective than celebratory.
The parade of Jersey cows being sold Saturday represented the end of an era lasting almost 50 years for the Hoffner family. After hanging on as long as he could in the business, second-generation dairy farmer Lonnie Hoffner knew it was time to get out.
“We tried to hold out,” he said. “We just couldn’t.”
Dairy farms have been steadily disappearing in North Carolina for years. In 1987, there were 65 farms with milk cows in Rowan County. Now, there are 13 milking dairies, according to Brad Johnson, Rowan County Extension agent.
Kind words and hugs from family friends buoyed the Hoffners on a day they hoped would never come.
Up until recently, Lonnie was milking a herd of 150 Jerseys at his farm on Mt. Tabor Church Road. His father, Bill Hoffner, began farming there in 1961. Lonnie has been working on the farm “ever since I could walk,” he says. In 1993, he took over from his father.
The whole Hoffner family was at the auction: Lonnie’s wife Julie, an elementary school teacher; their son John and daughters, Carrie and Laura. An agriculture teacher at South Rowan High School, Laura had brought some of her students to sell pork barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs and drinks as an FFA fundraiser.
Carrie, a sophomore at North Carolina State University, was snapping photographs in the auction tent, chronicling the passing of a cherished way of life.
Lonnie recalls Carrie ó dressed in her prom gown ó having her picture taken with the family’s favorite cow, Belle.
Belle and her heifer calf ó also Belle ó are the only livestock the Hoffners did not put on the auction block Saturday. Belle junior is now at the South Rowan FFA Land Lab, under Laura’s watchful eye.
At least partly on the heels of her dairy activities, Carrie is the North Carolina Future Farmers of American president ó a position her sister Laura has also held. Carrie is planning a career in agriculture marketing.
Johnson knows how important dairy cows have been to the Hoffner children. In high school, they excelled at dairy judging and dairy quiz bowl, he says, and as a result of their success at the state level, travelled around the country to compete at the national level.
Julie mostly avoided the action in the auction tent.
“I don’t like it in there,” she said.
Julie grew up on a dairy farm, so leaving the life is difficult for her. Her father was Jim Corriher, part of the Corriher Brothers Dairy family. That dairy went out of business in 1999.
Lonnie sat in back of the packed tent much of the time, attentive to the prices his cows were fetching, happy when bidding wars erupted.
“It really exceeded my expectations,” said Lonnie of the sale outcome.
Apparently, prices also exceeded the expectations of one dairy farmer from Georgia, Lonnie said, who left after 20 minutes when he realized what the cows were bringing.
The number of big trailers parked on the grounds indicated the seriousness of the buyers, who came not only from North Carolina but states including Oklahoma, Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Lonnie took a few minutes before the sale to speak from the heart to those assembled.
“I think I had everybody in tears,” he said.
Some of the locals attending were there not to buy any stock but to provide emotional support for the Hoffners, a well-known farm family.
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For years, Lonnie says, dairy farming was good to him.
Then, in 2004, the price of milk dropped severely.
“We never recovered from that,” he says. “That was the beginning of the end.”
When the export market dried up, the impact was felt quickly on domestic milk prices, which were pretty much slashed in half in January of this year from their previous levels.
Lonnie’s son, John, a senior at N.C. State, had planned to go in business with his father and eventually take over the dairy operation. In fact, he’d already built a small herd of his own.
Like most farm kids, John is practical. His degree at N.C. State was part of his back-up plan, he says. He hopes to stay in agriculture as an educator.
It’s hard for Lonnie to contemplate the reality that his son won’t be able to follow in his footsteps, as he followed in his father’s.
“It’s a shame,” Lonnie says. “It’s been my life. I hate to lose it. But it’s just not fun anymore. I’m not used to people calling and begging for money.”
Lonnie explains that there used to be a local processing plant ó Rowan Dairy ó which went out of business in the 1970s. Smaller dairies all over the country disappeared when large cooperatives emerged.
It’s difficult these days for smaller dairy farms to make it Lonnie says. “If you don’t produce a tankerload of milk, they don’t want to serve you,” he says.
Hoffner’s herd produced about 6,000 pounds of milk a day ó less than a tankerload.
Hoffner points out that four or five months ago, the price a farmer was paid for milk was about the same as it was in the 1960s ó roughly $10 per hundred pounds.
The price of feed, however, has increased dramatically. The Hoffners did not have enough land to grow a feed crop, so that made turning a profit more difficult for them.
The good news, Lonnie says, is that his last check was for $16.80 per hundredweight, a much better price than he was getting earlier in the year.
Still, he says, “it’s way too late for me.”
One thing he’ll miss, Lonnie says, is the genetic aspect of selective breeding. “Trying to keep improving those families, that’s what I’ll miss the most,” he says.
He’ll also miss competing at fairs and cow shows. “We’ve always enjoyed that,” he says.Although Hoffner has sold his herd, he’s grateful to be able to keep the farm. He will lease his land and facilities and manage a heifer replacement operation.
He’ll get a salary, so for the first time in his life he’ll be able to count on a steady income ó a foreign concept for most farmers.
He hasn’t really discussed the current state of affairs with his father, he says.
It’s one of those subjects that is perhaps too painful to even broach.
“I don’t want him to consider me as a failure,” Lonnie says, his voice fighting emotion.
“But I’m sure he understood what I was going through.