WELCH, Minn. ― Speakers and attendees at this year's Minnesota Milk Expo tried to find the silver linings in what is currently a depressed industry. 

Parker Byington, who operates Heritage Hills Dairy in Lewiston with his wife and parents, spoke on a panel held Dec. 4 at Prairie Island Resort and Casino.

"I grew up on a dairy, and wanted to dairy myself," said Byington. "So I had to find a way to make that happen."

Living in eastern Washington, his wife suggested they "look to where the opportunity was."

So three years ago they came to the heart of dairy country in the Upper Midwest, and started dairy farming in Lewiston. The farm they bought now has 8 full-time employees. They started with 350 cows and now have 600.

He said when they started in 2016, their basic strategy was to "hold course with the farm that was already there" and "don't screw it up." The family came in at 50 percent owners equity, which they were told was a healthy amount of debt to get started. That was projected on $17 Class III milk, which they were told was "conservative." 

"And away we go," he said. "And well, we didn't come close to that."

This past spring, Byington figured out the average milk price they have received since arriving in Lewiston, and it was $14.76.

"That's what we've all lived through," he said.

Byington, who earned a bachelor's degree in finance, said that by 2017 he realized they needed to make changes or they would be out of business within six months.

"We were bleeding equity that fast," said Byington.

One of the bigger changes they made was to take his dad off their payroll, as well as "finding every nook and cranny to milk a few more cows effectively and comfortably," said Byington.

He said it all comes back to a common mentality for the family. He referenced watching his grandma at Thanksgiving, and once everyone had eaten what they wanted from the turkey, she pulled every last piece of meat off the bone in order to make soup.

"And really that's the mentality that my dad had growing up -- just use and reuse stuff," he said. "A piece of metal gets put in the corner of the shop until it can be reused for something else."

Young hope

Also at the expo was Kasson native Carter Espinoza, a sophomore at South Dakota State University majoring in dairy production. Espinoza was one of this year's recipients of a Minnesota Milk scholarship.

Although he didn't live on a farm, Espinoza grew up working on farms with his dad. "It's definitely in the family," Espinoza said of dairy farming.

He said it was his mom and dad and his involvement in 4-H and FFA that made him want to pursue a degree in dairy production.

"I really enjoyed doing things with dairy and kept wanting to learn more," said Espinoza. "So I figured I had a passion for dairy, and might as well work in it."

It made his mom, who was raised on a dairy farm, happy that her son was following the dairy path. It was also welcome news to his dad, who's worked on a dairy farm his entire life.

Espinoza started his own herd when he was 15; it's housed at the farm where he and his dad work.

"That was very helpful, for his bosses to be so supportive," said MaryBeth Espinzoa of her son's herd. "It helped him get his foot in the door."

Even at the small farm where the father and son work, things are not great with depressed prices and a recent transfer of ownership.

MaryBeth Espinoza said she rarely sees her husband, who works seven days a week.

"They can't afford another person," she said. "Or even find another person who's willing to do the hard work."

Both still have hope for the dairy industry, but said it's getting harder to be optimistic.

"But to see the people in person, it's a good community to be around and a part of," she said.

Economic optimism 

Marin Bozic, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and member of the National Program on Dairy Markets and Policy, ended the expo with his outlook for the dairy industry.

Minnesota has lost 13 percent of its dairy farms in the last year, he said. But the world's high-quality dairy areas are moving away from mass production because of environmental concerns.

"If you take Europe and New Zealand out of the equation in a substantial way, the window of opportunity opens for us to start exporting more."

Regarding the trade tensions between U.S. and other countries, Bozic said things in the short-term are not good.

But in the long-term, it means more market increases, he said. He said it's already showing in the Canadian and Japanese markets.

"Long-term, all of the turmoil, is beneficial for ag," said Bozic.

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