By Mike Anderson & Sarah Grishpul
While dairy farms were once a common sight in Georgina, their numbers have declined over the years.
When the Dairy Farmer’s of Ontario, the provincial milk marketing board, was established in 1965, there were more than 500 dairy farms in York Region, with 30 of those located in Georgina.
Today, York Region has less than 20 dairy farms and the Wellman farm on Ravencrest Rd. is one of just six remaining dairy farms in Georgina.
Philip Wellman, who took over the farm from his father, is proud to be a dairy farmer but says it’s a lot of hard work and not for everybody.
“I’ve milked cows since I was 13. I’m 66 now, so that’s 53 years. And I decided anybody that milks cows for over 50 years is insane. And so I’ve passed the insane phase,” he said.
“Back in the day, you started farming at 13, so I had to get up at six o’clock in the morning to help with milking the cows and then I’d leave mom and dad to finish the milking to give me enough time to eat a breakfast and wash a little bit, so I didn’t stink in school.”
According to Wellman, the work never stops on their dairy farm. Eighty cows need to be milked twice daily; then there’s feeding and the barn to clean out.
Days start at 5:30 a.m., and the workweek is seven days. Vacations are only possible if they can hire a farmhand to take over.
The Wellmans also operate a pasture-based dairy farm, where the cows are allowed to graze and get daily exercise instead of being confined in stalls. But this means they must be let out and brought back into the barn.
Wellman admits it’s a more labour-intensive and expensive way to dairy farm, but it is more sustainable and better for the cows.
“I’m basically letting them live the kind of life that they were created to live. I think I have very healthy cows.”
Wellman points to many reasons for the decline in dairy farms, including urban sprawl, people drinking less milk and the threat of foreign competition.
But he says the chief reason is that many dairy farmers are retiring, and their children are reluctant to take over the farm.
“Most of it would be the old farmer who got too old to milk cows, and the next generation got a better job doing something else,” he said.
Fortunately, that’s not the case for Wellman, who recently sold the farm to his son Ross, and now helps out part-time.
Still, he admits there’s no guarantee that Ross, who’s in his 30s, will carry on where he and his father left off.
Despite practicing sustainable dairy farming, recent changes to animal welfare regulations will require his son to build a new $700,000 barn, which means taking on more debt, something he says his son doesn’t want to do.
He says Ross may be forced to sell off their 80 cows and try his hand at raising beef cattle instead.
Wellman believes dairy farming is no longer an attractive career option for young people.
Recent statistics seem to support this view.
According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, 2,205 dairy farm operators in Ontario are over the age of 55, while only 1,030 are below 35.
Wellman says young people are not taking up dairy farming because it requires a significant capital investment.
Under the supply management system, dairy farmers must buy their quotas — a single cow currently costs $25,000.
They also have to buy or rent farmland, purchase specialized equipment and pay feed and veterinary costs.
“Unless you have a parent or pile of money behind you,” he said. “It’s very difficult for young people to get into dairy.”
The pandemic hasn’t helped either, making everything more expensive.
“All our prices went up; some things went up really bad,” he said.
While Wellman and his son grow their animal feed, mostly corn, oats and barley, the cost of seed and fertilizer has doubled.
“I grow a corn crop to put in the silo. Before the pandemic, it cost $1,000 for fertilizer to plant 15 acres, and it will be double that this year.”
Those higher input costs have resulted in a 10 to 15 per cent spike in the retail price of milk and dairy products in 2022.
That’s because the Canadian Dairy Commission, the agency that sets the benchmark price for milk for provincial marketing boards, approved an 8.4 per cent increase in the farm gate price for raw milk last year, roughly about $0.06 per litre.
Wellman says the price hikes are necessary to keep dairy farms in business, but he empathizes with families who must pay more for milk, butter and cheese at the supermarket.
‘I feel for the young families that are just trying to feed their kids. Hopefully, when things flatten out after the pandemic, we can lower our prices,” he said.
But even with higher prices offsetting increased pandemic costs, Wellman is not optimistic about the future for small, family-run dairy farms.
He says the current conditions favour larger commercial dairy operations because they can rely on economies of scale, paying higher costs by producing higher milk volumes.
“Back in 1965, there would’ve been a whole lot of 100-acre dairy farms. We’re 300 acres here, and I’m likely the second smallest dairy farm in York Region right now,” he said.
“You have to ship enough milk that you can buy things. Otherwise, your equipment will get really old and break down, and then you’re going to be stuck.“
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