Milkman

“I think [farming helps] you see what government can do, but you also see what government can’t do.”

— Chairman Nathan Ramsey,
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners

“You’ve got to be efficient,” proclaims Nathan Ramsey, a lawyer by training and the current chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. If he says it once, he says it at least a dozen times. Ramsey, however, isn’t talking politics — he’s talking about running a dairy farm. Wearing a not-so-clean T-shirt, he discusses his daily routine — the facts and figures, the hows and whens.

Dairy farmers, he notes, play it close to the edge. You can’t afford many mistakes; you can’t afford any really big mistakes. And even the little ones could lose you your farm.

Speaking with a rural inflection, Ramsey tackles such topics as common-sense, efficient, market-based economics, government and environmental regulations. And underlying each of these subjects is an attachment to the land that plants his feet firmly in pragmatism and his heart in farming.

“I enjoyed law school,”admits the earnest 34-year-old, a 1992 University of Tennessee graduate. “[But] to be honest with you, when I was in [high] school, my brother and I wanted to farm. We thought all along that we’d grow up and have more cows.”

Nathan’s childhood was spent ranging the rolling hills of the family farm off Wilson Road in Fairview, where his grandparents (Lena and the late N.P. Ramsey) settled into dairying in 1968. He still lives in the stone farmhouse that guards the path to the barn, with its twin stone silos and weathered outbuildings. Nathan’s father and mother (Roy and Rebecca) and his brother (Bart) live there, too. The operation, now managed by the two brothers, is one of 14 dairy farms remaining in Buncombe County — down from 50 a mere 15 years ago.

For the young attorney, the decision to return to the farm meant turning down a job at the influential Texas law firm of Vinson & Elkins (the late Gov. John Connally practiced there). The firm was recently in the news as the outside counsel for the scandal-plagued Enron. “Who knows — I could have been in prison now,” quips Ramsey.

Instead, he and Bart are living out their teenage dream.

After Nathan finished law school in 1992, they began putting life back into the barns their dad had closed down back in 1987, during the government’s whole-herd buyout.

“We started out milking 60 cows,” Nathan reports. And when Bart graduated from UNCA in 1995, the two began adding to the herd, working a split shift in order to avoid hiring outside help.

Bart, a chemistry major, explains the routine of mixing the chlorine solution to spray the cows’ teats, managing the artificial insemination that produces more cows, and overseeing the testing required by Milkco, which buys their product. “Every load of milk,” he says, “they check for cell-count bacteria, check for water (to see if somebody’s added water to their milk), and check to see if there is antibiotic residue.” If the latter is found, the milk is summarily dumped.

“You have to pay for the whole tanker load,” says Bart. “More than two [antibiotic] violations in one year, they close you down.” As a safeguard, the Ramseys have off-site testing done.

As they developed their two-man operation, each brother was putting in roughly 65 hours a week over five or six days, says Nathan. “It’s worked pretty well — one person in the morning, one in the afternoon — until ’98.”

That’s when Nathan waded into political waters, first getting involved in the county’s nonbinding referendum on zoning (he opposed it), then plunging into a run for chairman of the Board of Commissioners that saw the Republican novice defeat veteran Democrat Tom Sobol in 2000. Interestingly, Nathan himself hails from a Democratic stronghold. In fact, he was the first person in his family to register as a Republican. Why? “Just to be contrary,” he confesses, musing, “You’ve got to rebel against your parents a little bit.”

“Papaw was a Democrat, and all this family, but they were conservative Democrats,” Nathan explains. Then he laughs, recalling a conversation he’d had last year with newly elected Democratic state Sen. Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville. Referring to Ramsey’s deep Buncombe County roots, Queen had quipped: “How are you a Ramsey and a Republican? You must have drunk bad water.”

Inevitably, Nathan’s off-the-farm commitment put new stresses on the dairy operation (now up to 100 cows). Normally, morning milking starts at 3 a.m. and ends around 9; afternoon milking starts at 2 and wraps up around 7. Most of the middle part of the day is devoted to other farm chores, including planting and harvesting all their own hay and the corn for silage.

That doesn’t leave a lot of time for outside work, and help had to be hired to fill in the gaps, though Nathan still tailors his Board of Commissioners duties to leave maximum hours for the cows. “I’ve tried to schedule certain days I don’t leave the farm,” he explains. “Monday, I’ll be here all day. On days I go to town, I try not to leave until 2 or 3 o’clock.” Weekends, he usually stays home, heading to the barn around 7 on lazy Saturday mornings. On Sundays, he and Bart help with the morning cleanup and then go to church just down the road — Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, which they’ve attended for 15 years. Then they come home and milk again.

“We milk 20 cows an hour,” Nathan notes. “A lot [of dairies] milk 60-70 an hour.” But they have newer technology and larger milking parlors — which require major capital investments. And that level of production would also necessitate hiring more hands. “If you’re going to hire people [and] pay them a decent wage, it’s a challenge to be able to do that,” he remarks.

“We milk a few more cows now,” says Nathan. “My grandfather had 60 cows and shipped 6,000 pounds every other day; we ship 13,500 every other day.” And that’s with production down slightly, while gas prices are up and the cost of vehicles and equipment is high. And then there are the inevitable financial surprises, such as their newest pickup truck, which sits down in the field, disabled by a recent fire. They hadn’t planned on replacing it this year.

“You can’t always see the future,” he observes. “You just have to work hard. The advantage is, we can keep our land; you can sort of justify doing that. A lot of people, when they quit farming, they have to sell.”

All told, the two brothers manage more than 300 acres of leased and family land — enough for grazing, hay fields and 60-70 acres of silage corn. These efforts also produce a beautifully pastoral landscape. (Between 1949 and 1992, the total farm acreage in Western North Carolina declined from more than 2 million acres to 592,600 acres — a 71 percent decrease, according to information on the Western North Carolina Tomorrow Web site.) But the best way to preserve farmland, argues Nathan, is to make farming a viable business.

“We have present-use value — that’s a big advantage for us,” he comments. But marginal farms that have to make big investments in equipment or to satisfy regulatory requirements may be left with no financial options. “If that farm’s going to be a subdivision, is that going to improve water quality?” he queries.

“I think the government has to use a little common sense,” says Ramsey, noting that the state’s farm-waste regulations are among the most stringent in the nation. “A lot of that’s because of hog waste,” he maintains, referring to the factory-style hog farms in eastern North Carolina that were the catalyst for the legislation.

The law, however, makes no distinction between the dense concentrations of animals on the hog farms and the two acres per cow that Nathan says a dairy requires. As a result, dairy farms with more than 100 cows (the current size of the Ramseys’ herd) must install expensive waste-management systems.

But the biggest thing working against farmers today, acknowledges Ramsey, is the lifestyle itself.

“It’s hard to have people see an easier way of living; it’s hard to counteract that,” says the man whose own love of rural life stands in stark contrast to the growing urban pressures the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners must increasingly confront.

“Animal-rights people say farmers don’t want to take care of their animals,” muses Ramsey, dipping back into that well of pragmatism that keeps the farm going. “If a cow’s not healthy, the last thing she’s gonna do is give milk.”

And right now, every drop of that milk is needed to produce precious little profit. For the last two years, in fact, the Ramseys — like all the other dairy farmers in the county — have had to rely on federal Milk Income Loss Compensation payments to stay in business, which “basically makes all of us welfare recipients,” says Ramsey. “I don’t know how much government can do with price supports and direct payments.”

Still, there he stands, on the land. Pausing a moment to discuss a lame cow with his brother. Proud of the farm’s new hay-baler. Grateful for the recent rain, which will nourish the alfalfa crop.

“People might live in suburbs, but their parents had a farm,” Ramsey says reflectively. “People [now] don’t have that connection, and it impacts them as far as being good decision-makers. I think [farming helps] you see what government can do, but you also see what government can’t do.”

What about the future?

“You just do the best you can. There’ll always be somebody in business around here.”

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