By MARINA WATERS
When David Saylor looks out over his dairy farm around 4:30 a.m. each morning, he sees the work the day has ahead for him and his son. He just hopes it is work the Saylor family, farming since 1940s, can afford to keep doing.
“My feed has gone up $60 to $70 since October,” Saylor said. “Corn was $3 earlier in the summer and now it’s right at $6 … If the prices don’t get no better, there’s no way we can stay.”
Saylor’s family has owned and operated Sayland Dairy Farm since 1948 when his father brought the farm’s milking venture to life.
“There was no dairy here,” Saylor said. “We sold some B-grade milk for a while then we built a barn and we’ve been at it ever since. My father started it in ’48. I was around 12 or 14. I do a lot more of the farm work than I do with the dairy farm (now). I’m trying to slow down. At 85, I think it’s time for me to slow down.”
Saylor said the hardest part of being a dairy farmer is by far the financial struggle.
“Right now it’s a very disheartening process,” Saylor said. “You just about have to have some sort of a supplement income to keep a going. Most the dairymen, if they have the supplement income, they have to hire a lot of help. If they do it themselves, they’ve got no free time. It’s a seven day a week from daylight until dark.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of licensed dairy herds in the U.S. fell by more than half between 2002 and 2019, and the rate of decline accelerated between 2018 and 2019, even as milk production continued to grow. The trend leans toward a decline in smaller dairy farms while larger operations continue to lead the industry.
Small dairy farms, like Saylor’s, are competing with corporate dairies, which the 85-year-old farmer says is a big reason the local industry has dwindled.
“You get out in the western states and they don’t have all these regulations and these housing developments,” Saylor said. “They milk 20,000 to 30,000 cows. As long as they can break even, they just keep a going. They don’t look at anything like you would here, how you make a living, family gatherings — they just go to it and get with it just like a factory.”
There was once a time that Washington County had working dairy farms strewn throughout its hills and valleys. Now, with just a handful of them left in Tennessee’s oldest county, Saylor said he is still trying to hold on to his dairy farm on Payne Lane.
“For about 20 years or longer, there was 25 or 30 here in the county,” Saylor said. “Earlier there might have been more. Now I believe four is all that’s left. Older gentlemen were a lot of them. There was one younger man that started but he couldn’t make it. It just kind of faded out.”
However, smaller grocery stores, like Ingles, have made a point to use locally produced milk, which oftentimes has helped keep the handful of dairy farms in the county afloat.
“They’ve been nice to us,” Saylor said. “Old Mr. Ingle is a friendly man. I met him a long time ago. He seemed to be as nice of a gentleman as he could be. If we can just take this group and keep going … If they quit buying then I say we’d be out of business completely.”
With so many struggles stacked against local dairy operations, why stay in it at all? For Saylor, closing up his dairy barn for good is a thought he and his family can’t bear to see become a reality.
“It’s just a thing we’ve done all of our life,” Saylor said. “We just can’t agree to quit.”
Memories of family gatherings, friends and even local FFA groups also surround the farm for the Saylors. And those memories make it that much harder to imagine giving it up.
“I’ve got two daughters and six granddaughters. They’ve been around here,” Saylor said. “They showed cattle. We showed at a lot at fairs around everywhere. It’s just an enjoyable time like that with everybody right there together — the enjoyment of family and friends there has been over the years.”
The farm is also a family outfit. Saylor’s son, Mike, currently heads up the dairy operations while Saylor’s two daughters live just across the street.
“We’ve got everybody right here,” Saylor said. “… It’s just a family operation. We can’t hardly stand to give up. It’s just like anything someone has, you know? It’s hard to give it up. We’ve done it so long.”
But it’s not over. As Saylor wraps up his talk with the Herald & Tribune, he and his son agree for the 85-year-old farmer to hop in his red pick-up truck and bring a load of feed back from Knoxville before nightfall comes and they start it all again the next day.
Before he goes, Saylor looks across the same hills on which his father once started their dairy farm and is reminded of what all the place has been to him and his family and what it might remain.
That, he says, is what keeps him going.
“The memories. The memories of what it’s been,” Saylor said, when asked what keeps him working on the farm. “You just hate to think, ‘well, we’ve come to the end.’ You don’t want to think that. It ends quick enough, but you don’t want to think you get to it that quick.”