Brad Marks wants his grandchildren to grow up knowing how to handle a calf, milk a cow and run a farm. He wants the future generations to know the experience of their ancestors, working the same fields that have been in the family for 180 years.
In decades past, milking cows and running the family dairy operation were a right of passage for the youth in Newton County, as more than 60 dairy farms were scattered across the agriculturally-heavy county.
Today, Newton County has one dairy operation, as farmer after farmer was driven out of business by evaporating profits, urban sprawl and rising land prices and the deterioration of the farming family.
If Marks has his way, there will be two dairy farms in Newton County.
When textile mills ruled the land, everyone grew cotton, but Newton County was never ideal for row crops because of a lack of water and, therefore, irrigation and a red clay soil that's not as conducive to row crops as the sandy soils of south Georgia.
At the same time, middle Georgia has plenty of attributes that make it a good fit for dairy farming, including little frost in the winter, less extreme heat than south Georgia and fewer issues with pesky gnats. Brad's son B.J. said he was told the Interstate 20 corridor was once known as the Dairy Belt because of the farms stripped across the state.
The way Brad tells, as veterans returned from World War II, they headed back to their farms and were looking for a way to make money more consistently than row cropping, so they turned to dairy cows.
However, commercial milk production wouldn't have been possible without a processing plant, and Atlanta Dairies fit that need for Atlanta and the surrounding region, taking the raw milk and processing it for commercial storage and consumption.
"We were here - Hays Dairy, Spears Dairy, - they were everywhere. Jack Chandler and Ray Fuss on the west side of the county," Brad said. "The whole county was spotted around with dairies, local farmers who decided to do it."
In addition, farmers had plenty of help from both families that worked the land alongside the owners and the large number of children they themselves had.
"Daddy had six kids," Brad said. "He wanted to have somebody to milk the cows."
Barely a remnant
Dairy farms thrived for many years, but the forces of change in America, as they frequently have, proved too strong for tradition.
The country was getting primed for a housing boom, and more young Americans were seeking the modern American dream of homeownership, well-paying, stable jobs and comfort.
Farming is like gambling, Brad said. You put a lot of money in and you can get a lot of money back, or you can lose everything. The weather is unpredictable, animals can get sick and fortunes can change.
At the same time, milk is one of those goods that has seen its price stay fairly stable during the years even as the cost of doing business, particularly paying for corn to feed the cattle, has increased. Brad's brother Ben argues the wholesale milk price should be nearly double what it is today. As prices remain low, so does the return on investment and margin for success.
Farms began to disappear as jobs shifted to a growing Atlanta, which thrived in the late 1970s and 1980s, and profitability declined due to increased competition and higher interest rates for farm loans.
Ray Fuss, who may have owned the second largest farm in Newton, sold his land in 1984 for $800 an acre. Today, the iconic silos still stand as a symbol of one of Newton County's largest housing developments. Land prices would only soar in the years following.
The Marks dairy farm on Mt. Moriah Road was the largest, but the costs eventually caught up to them too. Brad sold his cows in 1994, shortly after his father T.L. Marks, and uncle died. The family had accumulated so many cows, between 400 and 500, a specialized company from South Carolina was hired to handle the auction. The milk cows were sold the first day, while the heifers, young calves and all the equipment was sold the second day.
"That why a lot of families never came back. They saw they could make good money doing something else and not have to work all the time," Brad said. "As the senior family members of the dairies got to the point they couldn't go anymore, were tired and ready to retire, nobody would take it. So they sold the cows, shut the barns down, and as the housing boom came, sold the land."
Love only gets you so far
Brad will never forget the snow storm or the blizzard of 1993. While many families were doing their best to stay warm in the comfort of their homes, Brad and his family members were out in the cold caring for the cows, breaking the layer on ice in the water troughs and making sure the hoses weren't frozen.
"We never missed a milking," Brad said with pride. "Snapping Shoals would come to us first because they knew we needed power (to keep the milk fresh)."
But while his voice swells with pride at a job well done in the family business, Brad knows many don't share his feelings.
"Folks don't want that life," Brad said simply. "Families chose to go in different directions, either out of the dairy business because they were working seven days a week, or the next generations were going off to college and not coming back to the farm."
The Marks sold the cows, but they never sold the farm, and Brad, Ben and B.J. hope they never do.
"When we talk about why (we do this), it's the love of the land and the love of the industry," he said. But he's not ignorant to the pragmatic side. "Love only gets you so far; love won't pay the bills."
What does help pay a significant portion of the bills, are the three men's jobs at local cereal and food manufacturer General Mills. But that means they work all day at the plant and then come home to work on the farm.
Love won't pay the bills, but B.J. has an idea of what might.
Niche milk market
B.J. has a good friend in the pet milk industry, a niche market that provides high-quality raw, filtered milk for pets. The Marks could go in that direction, or they could sell conventional milk locally, banking on the fact there is demand for high-quality local products with no hormones. Even though they could operate with only 30-40 cows, the investment and risk are still large.
"The saying is, if you want to make a small fortune in farming, start with a big one," Brad said and laughed.
Farming is a historic profession, but it's one that seen a seismic shift in technology. From self-drive tractors to GPS technology that aids in effective spraying of fertilizer and pesticides to cow monitoring devices that keep track of health.
The Marks' are looking at an investment north of half a million dollars, which is why they're taking their time. B.J.'s been researching the field for more than two years.
"A lot of folks keep saying I'm crazy for considering this, including my wife," Brad said.
"My wife too," B.J. said.
"My wife's on board," Ben said, eliciting laughs from the room.
The Marks plan to make a decision soon, and if they land on a dairy farm, they'll be only the second one in the county. If they do, B.J.'s boys, Tripp and Joe, will grow up doing the same things their father, grandfather and great-grandfather and beyond did.
"You do things in life that make you happy. You do things that you do because there is a desire or a need," Brad said. "Do I like looking at computer screens or equipment running inside of a building? No. My daddy and granddaddy raised me and my brothers and my sisters to tend the land, tend the cows, and I'd love to get back to that.
"Growing up, I knew where my food came from. Two weeks ago, I asked my mother how many biscuits she had made in your life. She didn't know but said she suspected she made as many as 100 a day when we were all in the house. Folks now a days unwrap and pop the top off the can.
"I'd love to teach these boys the love of caring for a calf. This one (Joe) is named after my dad and other (Bradford ‘Tripp') is named after me. Six generations are buried in our family cemetery, and I'd love to know that 5, 6, 7 generations will be able to say ‘Hey, my family were farmers back when and we're still farmers now.' That's the reason I want to do this."
Brad's mother died this past week, but she's buried in the family's cemetery on land that will remain in the family for years to come and will remain a part of the heritage she helped build.