It isn’t easy being a dairy farmer these days. With low milk prices, brought on by production increases, consolidation and a federal pricing system unfavorable to Upper Midwest producers, small dairy farms are struggling to stay in business. Minnesota and Wisconsin no longer lead the nation’s milk production — California does, and other western and southern states are gaining.

Still, dairy is Minnesota’s largest agriculture sector, with 7,500-plus producers feeding millions into our state’s economy every year. Dairy farmers are a stubborn bunch. Some are determined to control their destiny by bottling and processing their own milk, cheese, butter and ice cream. They want to take advantage of the substantial price difference between raw milk and retail dairy products.

AURI recently co-sponsored feasibility studies on producer-owned dairy processing operations, from on-farm bottling to cooperative-run creameries that have worked in population-dense regions. Studies show prospects are dim — the current milk processing distribution system is too well established for small newcomers to enter easily. However, there are niches in natural food markets for producers willing to work long hours in a high-risk, shoestring venture.

AURI does not advocate or discourage any particular approach to dairy farming. Rather, we present here a look at producers’ challenges and attempts by some to sustain their operations with unconventional dairy marketing schemes.