Constant struggle sees woman sell dairy business

Published on May 11, 2014

Bonnie Sutherland stands Friday morning with a bouquet in her arms given to her by the auctioneer who was going to be auctioning off her farm equipment. Behind her are the implements of her farm that were sold Friday.


RIVER JOHN – It didn’t take long for the Bonnie Sutherland’s Holsteins to attract the attention of a buyer in in the U.S. and a big luxurious looking trailer came and picked them up. Her milk quota sold equally fast.

Friday morning Sutherland walked through empty barns where the animals that consumed her waking hours for the last 39 years were housed.

Her days of dairy farming are over.

In one barn on the floor was everything from ropes to a mop bucket – all numbered and ready for the auction that would be happening in a couple of hours. In the yard outside, were three bright green John Deere tractors soon to be sold.

Piece by piece the world Sutherland had built was sold off by the auctioneer as hungry bidders rushed to devour the pieces of what until recently was a well-respected dairy farm. The old life is over. A new one is about to begin for Sutherland.

“I guess now I can finally get on with retirement,” she said.

Sutherland got into dairy farming with her father after coyotes made sheep farming too great a gamble. They grew the business, cow by cow, building by building. At the end everything was automated.

But at 60 she was getting tired of getting up at 2:15 a.m. to milk the cows. When her hired helper said he was going to get another job earlier this year, she finally decided she had had enough. She said good help is hard to find in the business and she couldn’t bear the thought of having someone with a phone stuck in the hand texting all the time.

She spent four days crying, but knew in the end it was the right decision. Farming is hard work, requires lots of money and has high risks. Sutherland doesn’t blame young people for wanting to pursue more stable work. She said unless you have the equipment and barns to begin with, it’s really hard to get into.

There are three expenses that she says are a constant struggle for farmers to contend with: feed, fuel and fertilizer. All are on the rise. At the best of times, you can make ends meet, but all it takes is one breakdown or unexpected expense to get you into debt that you’ll never be able to pay off. Only the big farms are able to survive in this environment.

So it made sense in her situation to sell, as it has for other small farmers in the region.

Even with the auction over, she said people are welcome to even take the barns and rebuild them if they’re interested.

“Everything’s for sale except the house and the dog,” she said.

There are some things you can’t give up.

There are now just 12 dairy farms in Pictou County. In Nova Scotia there are about 230.

Last month there were three farms that got out of the business, said Brian Cameron, general manager of the Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia.

While there are some in situations like Sutherland who are ready to get out of the business, Cameron said, overall the number of dairy farms has remained stable and he believes there is a good mix of farm sizes.

What’s nice is that almost all farms are family-run whether it be a single family or fathers with sons or cousins, he said.

As families grow, demand grows.

“It’s too bad we don’t have quota to fill all that demand,” he said.

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