TOWNVILLE, S.C. — Megan Dobbins’ entire life was based around the family dairy farm. At its peak, Pine Lane Farm, now called Four M Farm, had 300 cows. Now that she no longer sees them every day, she said she feels empty.
“It’s a sad, empty feeling to know that there’s no cows standing out here,” she said. “You can’t just walk out here and love on one because they’re gone and you’ve seen them out here your whole life. And they’re just gone.”
Four M Farm in Townville was one of the last conventional, family-owned dairy farms in Anderson County before it closed earlier this year after 46 years. The last milking day for the Dobbins family was April 3, and the cows were sold off later that week.
In South Carolina, the number of dairy cows has continued to drop. At its peak, there were about 190,000 cows in 1945, according to Adam Kantrovich, associate professor of agribusiness at the Clemson University Cooperative Extension.
As of July, there were 14,000, according to United States Department of Agriculture estimates.
Twenty years ago, there were 33 dairy farms in Anderson County, according to Kantrovich. By 2012, only seven were still producing and selling milk. Now, there’s only one.
Dobbins remembers the day they sold their dairy cows.
“The morning the cows left, we loaded them up on potbelly trucks, and you look at the cows you’ve raised from calves, and you think: ‘I hope she knows I tried. I hope she knows that,’” Dobbins said as her voice broke.
Dobbins, 35, said she knew all the cows on the farm, but she had a favorite: a Brown Swiss cow named Candy.
“They were family,” Dobbins said, rolling up her left shirt sleeve to show a tattooed color portrait of Candy on the farm. Her right arm bears a tattoo of the farm itself.
Experts at the Clemson University Cooperative Extension confirmed that Anderson County’s last known operating dairy farm is L.D. Peeler’s 41-year-old Milky Way Farm in Starr.
Milky Way Farm sells unpasteurized milk and also sells milk to the public, which is what sets it apart from the pasteurized milk once sold to a co-op by Four M.
In other situations, being the only producer of something might be a positive thing, but Peeler said it’s the opposite.
Because so many local dairies have gone out of business, so has the infrastructure needed to maintain them.
He finds himself having to travel to other states to get the replacement parts he needs to keep his equipment running.
“As long as I’ve been in the dairy business, I have never, ever thought about exiting the business, but it has crossed my mind now,” Peeler said.
Peeler said he’s not making a profit at this point, but he’s able to make ends meet. His son runs the day-to-day operations of the farm and loves doing it, so Peeler keeps the farm going.
The purchase price of milk peaked at $27.30 in 2014 and then plummeted and hasn’t rebounded much since then, Kantrovich said.
The popularity of nut milks has also played a role by causing the demand for cow’s milk to decrease.
It costs $17 per cow per day to get 100 pounds of milk, Dobbins and Peeler both said. But a co-op buyer would only pay $16 and $14 respectively for the same amount. That doesn’t account for the other costs of keeping the farm running.
And, statewide, milk production in 2018 dropped to an annual average below what farmers would need to be financially sustainable, Kantrovich said.
The average consumer probably won’t notice anything as small family farms die off, Kantrovich said. But it’s a life-altering shift for farmers, whether they switch to another product or shut down the farm altogether.
The decision to close the family farm or change the farm’s product is usually especially hard because these farms often go back several generations, Kantrovich said.
“They usually do not want to be the last generation farming; they may feel as if they are letting down themselves, their family and previous generations,” he said. “They may feel as if they have somehow failed, but they have not.
“Farming is a business, it is a family business, but it is also a way of life — a hard but good life.”
There are still some animals living on the land at Four M Farm. Dobbins’ ideal outcome would be to turn the farm into an agritourism destination focused on educating people about farmers and their products.
“For so many kids, you’ve taken away knowing where the food comes from,” she said. “We go to the grocery store and get it, but how does it get to the grocery store?
“If you kill all the farmers off, where’s your food gonna come from? Do you want it to be all processed and out of a plant?”
She’s not sure if her dreams of agritourism can happen, but she doesn’t want to see her family’s land sold off.
“With it being so close to the interstate, somebody could come and try to develop it,” she said. “You just never know. I would hate to see it all leveled out and be a strip mall.”