NIMISHILLEN TWP. — Before Lela Raber’s death in 2008, her son, Dwight, promised her he’d keep the family’s fourth-generation dairy farm running for at least 10 more years.
He kept his word.
But times have changed.
“I’ve got to make $16 (per 100 pounds, or 11.6 gallons of milk) just to break even,” Dwight Raber said as he turned the pages on a printed report that details daily production of the Stark County farm’s 235 cows. “Right now, I’m at $13.89 and it’s been that way for two years.”
Raber’s laid-back tone belies what he’s felt inside the past few years.
The stress was catching up to him and he was hospitalized with blood clots last summer. He’s accustomed to long hours of waking up to work at 4:15 a.m. and quitting at sunset, but that lifestyle has become ever more grueling now that he’s 58.
“He has poured his heart into this farm,” said Raber’s wife, Julia, an English teacher at East Canton High School. “He just goes and goes, 24/7. But it’s time to slow down; it really is. His mother also told him, ‘Please don’t ruin your health.’ ”
Several years ago, Raber added beef cattle to the farm to supplement the dairy portion. After agonizing for more than a year, Raber has come to the conclusion that it’s time to quit milking cows — he just can’t make a living at it anymore.
He could have held out longer, though he decided it wasn’t worth the risk of a larger financial hole.
So, at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Kiko Auctions will sell Raber's herd of dairy cows and much of the equipment he’s accumulated through the years.
The same story is playing out at an ever-increasing pace across the state. In January 2017, there were 2,647 dairy farms in Ohio, compared to 2,045 by January of this year, according to license statistics from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Ohio has lost another 51 dairy farms already this year, slicing the statewide number to 1,994.
“The trend is alarming,” said Dianne Shoemaker, an Ohio State University Extension Field Specialist in dairy product economics. “It’s … not the way I’d like to see the dairy industry going.”
She said the business has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. Profit margins are smaller and smaller, which often requires farms to get even larger to survive. Shoemaker said about 17 percent of the milk produced in the U.S. is exported.
“There’s a lot of milk out there,” she said. “Back in grandfather’s day, the milk prices were local. Now they are global … or they are at least influenced on a global level.”
“I’m a little scared,” Raber admitted.
All he’s known is being a dairy farmer. He and his brother, Bruce, who died in 2007, grew up working the farm. So did his father, Russell. Same for his grandfather, Ernest. And his great-grandfather, Albert, who founded the farm after he came to the United States from Schangnau, Switzerland, in 1891, and changed the family’s surname from ‘Reber’ to ‘Raber’ because he grew tired of hearing it mispronounced.
Over the years, the farm grew to its present 500 acres.
A faded “Raber Dairy Farms” sign along State Street Northeast will soon be replaced with one that drops ‘Dairy’ from the title. Dwight Raber plans to grow his beef herd and to plant and sell crops — in the past, all the crops had to be used for feed.
“It’s going to be a lifestyle change for the better for him,” said Debbie Hajba, one of Dwight’s two sisters, who grew up on the farm before marrying and moving out.
Dairy cows get milked twice a day. They’re also particular about their feed. Their mix has be consistent and exact for them to produce milk at a high level.
Beef cattle are less high-maintenance. Raber said he’ll take advantage of his extra time to tidy up the property and pay more attention to aesthetics, as his mom and grandmother did.
“This was a showplace; I want to return it to that,” he said.