A small dairy farmer says he is part of a fading past - The Buffalo News
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A small dairy farmer says he is part of a fading past

WHEATFIELD – As most Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving feast, they give thanks for their family, their health and in some cases their food. But how many really think about where that food comes from?

Dairy farmer Robert A. “Rob”Koithan, 59, a fifth-generation dairy farmer, and his wife, Krisann “E. Kris,” 56, think about it every day and clearly see an end to their family farm.

The small dairy farm has been in business since 1853, and with no family members willing to take on the tough farming life, it will cease operations when Rob retires in a few years.

The Koithan Farm was recently one of only nine farms to be recognized in the Northeast by Dairylea Cooperative Inc. for producing top-quality milk throughout 2012.

“It gives us good satisfaction that our hard work pays off,” Rob Koithan told the cooperative.

His family farm’s raw milk was rated and tested on industry criteria that include a somatic cell count, a standard plate count (tests for infections,) no water added and no growth inhibitors. The Milk Quality Management Award Program rates all Dairylea Cooperative members from across the Northeast. Dairylea is a farmer-owned agricultural marketing and service organization with more than 1,200 member farms from across the Northeast, selling more than 6 billion pounds of raw milk annually.

Koithan said his high-quality milk gets the couple a premium price when it is sent to Cuba Cheese, which buys all of its milk, but he also noted that quality is also important because the family, which includes seven daughters, drinks the unpasteurized raw milk.

“Milk is the best and cheapest food for everybody,” Koithan said.

The Koithan farm on Route 425/Shawnee Road also produces apples, pumpkins and pears sold at a roadside stand to supplement the family income, which sadly is not keeping up with inflation, according to the Koithans.

Rob Koithan was asked about the family operation.

How many cows do you have?

I have 30 milk and dry cows combined and probably 35 more calves and heifers that don’t get milked yet. About 65 head all together. We produce about 870,000 to 900,000 pounds of milk a year, generally about 2,400 pounds of milk each day.

How do you feel about your cows?

I love my cows. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve gone from almost milking cows in the stone ages. I can remember when we hit 40 pounds (of milk) per cow, and now we’re up to 80 with the same cows. I’ve done things to make things easier, like buy a pipeline, better machinery. The pipeline was so you don’t have to dump buckets. I did that after my father retired in 1992, because (Kris) would milk for us, and three cows would fill a 65-pound can, and she couldn’t dump it. (Kris said it was her anniversary present).

What’s a typical day like for you?

Get up at 10 to 5 (a.m.). walk over here, do a lot of things, milk the cows, she feeds them. Clean the stables, bed them, and around 8 a.m. we eat breakfast. Then I gotta bring hay and straw over. Every other day I gotta clean the heifer pen. Once a week I grind feed. When I am picking apples – for a month that’s all I do. (He said he milks them all again at about 4 p.m. every day as well).

Were you surprised to be chosen for this award for milk quality?

No. I have been getting this award for six years in a row. Five from Upstate (milk cooperative), and then I switched cooperatives to Dairylea. Every tank is checked. It is pasteurized after it is sent out, but we are drinking it raw, right out of the tank. It’s kind of like an apple. I wouldn’t want to eat a rotten apple, and I wouldn’t want to sell a rotten apples to somebody.

Is this your family’s farm?

Yes. We’ve been out here since 1853. I make my living with the dairy.

Do people realize the work involved in running a family dairy farm? There seems to be a lot fewer farms like this.

I’m the last one left on 425, from North Tonawanda down to the lake. You go back maybe in the ’60s, there was maybe like 30 dairies on this road. We’re probably down to like thirtysomething dairy farms in the whole Niagara County. The small family farm is going to be a thing of the past.

So are you the end of an era?

My kids and nobody else’s kids want to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, almost every day of the year. And I don’t even make minimum wage – the two of us together. Is there something wrong with this? You don’t get any pension or any health insurance. (Kris noted that she was unable to look at plans and register online for the Affordable Care Act and was in the midst of filling out 19 pages of paperwork that had to be mailed for health insurance coverage.)

Why are farms like yours facing these issues?

Congress controls the price of what I get in the milk, and they don’t have a clue. We get paid half of what it should be, plus inflation. I can net more on a gallon of cider than I gross on a gallon of milk, and I got 10 times more work and equipment that I put into making a gallon of milk. There’s something wrong. The price of milk hasn’t changed much in 30 years in the store. Bottled water costs more than milk.

Are your expenses going up?

You’ve gotta know what ethanol’s done to people. It’s great if you are growing corn to produce ethanol, but what if you buy corn to feed the pigs or chickens or cows or beef animals? When I used to pay $2.40 a bushel for corn for years and years and all of a sudden I am paying $6.40 and the price of milk doesn’t go up. What’s Congress think?

So are you unhappy?

Kris Koithan says: The thing that makes us happy is when we can spend time with our family.

Rob Koithan says: I have good kids. I don’t have kids staying out, on drugs, getting into trouble. Ask any company who hires my kids. They’ve never seen kids work like my kids. I used to enjoy working every day with my father since I was about 5. He’s got Alzheimer’s and dementia, and it’s hard for me to have worked with somebody every day of my life, to somebody who you don’t even know if he knows who you are.

Is there something that you do find positive about working on your farm?

I’m with (Kris) all day. We took our kids in the barn with us and on the tractor, so we were always with them. That’s something a lot of parents don’t do. I do enjoy it. I don’t have to drive out on the roads every day to get to work. I don’t have a boss. And I can’t fire myself.

Kris Koithan adds, laughing: No matter what I do. No matter how bad a job I do. I can’t get myself fired either.

Rob Koithan gets the last word: If everybody spent a week on a farm – and bring their kids – they would know what real work was.

Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com. email: nfischer@buffnews.com

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