The Last Dairy Farm in Leelanau County
Documenting a Fading Way of Life in Northern Michigan
As is the case with a lot of tips and information gathering in northern Michigan, I was talking with someone in a bar. This wasn’t just any bar though, it was Dick’s Pour House in the small community of Lake Leelanau. Dick’s was a favorite hangout of author Jim Harrison, probably because it was the closest bar to his residence. The pizza at Dick’s is some of best.
The man seated next to us had finished his shift harvesting apples prior to arriving at Dick’s for a couple of hard-earned pilsners. We began talking. His talk about apples, his daughter getting married in a couple of weeks, and farming, eventually lead to him mentioning that a small farm was the last dairy farm in Leelanau County. It was a moment of slight shock in that I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, since there used to be many, but I could understand it.
Leelanau County has some of, if not the, most sought-after real estate around. The entire county has no stop lights or fast food establishment—there is one Subway restaurant that must’ve snuck in—and is surrounded by water. It’s not a secret that real estate and houses are commanding premium prices. Add to that, prices of farming continue to rise while prices of milk stay about the same, and it’s easy to understand why dairy farming—or any farming for that matter—is tough. The farms and farmers who were once numerous on the Leelanau Peninsula, are now dwindling in numbers. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the number total number of farms in Leelanau County has gone down five percent since 2012.
Then and there I decided I must photograph this dairy farm and farmer as soon as possible. Within the next week I drove up to the barn of the farm I was interested in, just as a man was exiting his truck. I introduced myself and the man who owned the property introduced himself as Terry Lautner. Lautner is tall, with farmer’s hands and a canvas jacket complete storytelling rips and holes. After explaining to Terry my interest in documenting his milking of cows, he kindly agreed and we chose a time to meet, a few days later.
A Morning Milking
It was early in the morning and snow was falling; it was the first snow of the season. They weren’t large flakes, or many for that matter. They were small in size and numbers; but they fell slow and it was peaceful watching them. The snow-watching zen lasted a couple of minutes before I drove to Lautner’s farm.
As I pulled up, there was a glow from the barn where he said he’d be. Lautner milks his cows—approximately 60 of them—twice a day. Every day. As I stepped in, I heard AM talk radio over the milking machine. After navigating some dairy equipment and doors, I found Lautner milking cows.
He stood in an in-ground trough—which put him at a convenient udder level—as he made sure the milking operation went as it should. The machinery involved included tubes, teat cups and vacuums. There was an understanding and grace—by Lautner and the cows—of what had to be done and how to do it. Doing something twice a day, every day, a routine is inevitable. The morning milking and afternoon milking take about two and a half hours each.
I talked with Lautner about his farming operation and the reduction in numbers of farms, particular dairy farms. He explained that it’s hard work and even if the farmer is up to the task, sometimes the environment and cows aren’t. He described a situation years ago when a particularly hot summer resulted in cows not producing very much milk. His cows still produced a wonderful amount of milk, though. The reason: a row of trees on the west side of the fields kept the cows cool, and happy.
When a group of cows numbering about 12—the group was comprised of Holstein cows and brown Swiss—were finished, they made there way out of the milking barn as Lautner ushered in the next group. What I found quite remarkable, was how observant most of the cows were. Space was tight, and I positioned myself where the cows would exit. Almost every cow would stare at me and the difference would be that some cows would stop and stare, while others would slow down to walk and stare. There was one cow in particular that was so intrigued by my presence, that she came back for a longer stare.
When the last cows were milked for the morning, I asked Lautner if I could make a portrait of him. He obliged and we found a spot in the cow-staging area. The light was magnificent.
After Lautner used a water hose to remove cow shit from my boots, I thanked him and was on my way.
To photograph Lautner doing his labor of love, was a true privilege. The experience of it was even more important to me as the farming way of life gradually disappears in this section of northern Michigan. I’m thankful for him and for all the farmers out there who work so hard so that we can have what we have.