Stacking the Deck
Farmers like Albin Smith are experts at dealing with weather, but supercharged storms are starting to stack the deck.
When you first meet him, Albin’s quick wit, generous manner and natural humility easily hide his toughness and grit. A truck driver’s son, and the oldest of seven siblings, he learned from a young age that he was going to have to work for anything he wanted in life. Dairy farming provided that opportunity. In high school, his first milking job helped him get new clothes and a new car. Now it provides his livelihood. Albin started off small. In the ‘70s, with 30 of his own cows, he needed a farm to rent. Clovis, New Mexico, with its mild climate and cool nights, was just beginning to be a dairy hotbed, so he sold two cows to pay for the trip from Arizona, and has been here ever since. He beams describing his hard work in the early years – milking every 12 hours, napping every other day. He didn’t have much money, but he was “the richest guy in river boots.”
If the economics of dairy farming could’ve allowed Albin to keep his operation that size forever, he would’ve, but there has been huge pressure to expand and consolidate in the last few decades. There were 90,000 US dairy farms in 2000; today there are only 42,000. Albin founded Arrowhead Dairy nearly a decade ago and navigated economics, weather, staff management, environmental regulations, and the growth of his herd to became a leading producer. For him, it’s always been about the cows. Thirty minutes into the conversation he laughed, “we haven’t even gotten to the cows yet!” Before we get to the cows, you need to meet Robert Hagevoort, New Mexico State University's Extension Dairy Specialist who connected us to Albin and joined for the meeting. Robert works closely with Albin to ensure the operation is as efficient, sustainable, and productive as possible. The results show. Arrowhead Dairy’s 3,000 cows produce about five truckloads of milk per day. Based on my back-of-the-napkin math, that means he produces enough milk for 150,000 people every day. Albin and Robert beam with pride when they describe the operation. They should be proud. I don’t know anyone else who can say they fed more than a million people last week. Now to Albin’s passion: the cows. The day after Christmas in 2015, winter storm Goliath hit Clovis, NM, and left an impact that still lingers. Farmers are usually among the best-prepared for weather disasters – they know they’ll have to deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at them. But Goliath was a different scale, and it caught many farmers off-guard. Snow came in quickly and the wind lasted for days. Snow blew across harvested fields, packing into barns and pens, and drifting over roads. On the night of the 26th, the wind hit 82 miles per hour at the Clovis Airport. Albin’s son became disoriented trying to drive the quarter mile from his house to the barn. The storm was so quick and fierce that Albin was stuck at his house in town. He’d call his son and ask, “are you milking?” and his son would say, “Dad, we can’t. I’m not sending anyone out there.” In total, Arrowhead couldn’t milk for 44 hours.
But lost milk was the least of Albin’s problems. The snow started packing into the windbreaks and other structures so quickly that cows began suffocating. When Albin could finally make it to the farm, he found his son driving a skid-loader around in a feverish attempt to remove snow and save his cows. Choking back tears as he recalls arriving at the farm, Albin remembers feeling totally powerless. His son stepped out of the loader and said, “Dad, what are we gonna do?” “I don’t know,” was all Albin could muster. When the storm finally blew out, Albin had lost 287 cows and nearly 100 heifers, all of whom either drowned in snow drifts or froze to death. He spent a year nursing 500 injured and sick cows back to health. The total cost was more than $1.5 million – nearly eight years’ worth of profit – a figure that he’ll likely be recovering from until 2025. As tragic as Albin’s story is, he isn’t alone. In neighboring Texas, Goliath killed more than 30,000 dairy cows and 12,000 beef cows. The scale is astounding. Goliath can’t be solely attributed to climate change, but climate scientists assert that a changing climate makes extreme events like Goliath more likely. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “events like El Nino and La Nina coupled with the increasing volatility created by our changing climate make it more important than ever to plan for whatever Mother Nature will be throwing our way.” Maybe that’s why Albin wants to be part of the solution. According to Robert, US dairy producers are already the most efficient in the world, using fewer fossil fuels per gallon of milk than any other country in the world. Albin and other area dairy producers have worked with Robert and New Mexico State University to respond to weather events, implement new management practices and plan for what the future may hold. Robert repeatedly stressed the ingenuity of the farmers he works with: his constant refrain is, “how can we do more with less?”
It’s obvious that dairy farmers are seeing the impacts of a changing climate – and have a lot to gain if we can stave off the worst scenarios. But not many environmental groups are even trying to talk with them. We asked Albin how the climate movement can include more people like him. His advice? “Conversation is good, confrontation is bad.” That’s an approach we’ll carry with us as we search for more folks like Albin across the rural West.
Written by Peter Sargent
Photography by Virginia Sargent