By Benjamin Cohn
Sandy Mush – When you go to pick up that gallon of milk at the grocery store, keep in mind that it didn’t show up in that nice plastic or paper carton on its own. It came from a dairy farm run by a dairy farmer.
Aubrey Wells used to run the last operating dairy farm in Leicester. With his retirement from the dairy business and the sale of his remaining cattle to a dairy farm down east in Crouse, suddenly there are none.
Wells spoke to the Leader about the passing of an era. Said Wells, “I just sold my cows. I’m not giving up my farm.” He clarified that, while parting with his final dairy cows and, indeed, the final dairy cows of the Leicester area, he will retain ownership of his farm for the manufacture of other animal products.
“I’m 65,” Wells said. “I’m switching to do beef cows. You don’t have to milk them twice a day,” one of the relative benefits of raising beef cattle over dairy cattle, he said. “Yeah, they’re gone [dairy cattle]. They went down to Crouse, North Carolina to a dairy that’s milking 1,500 cows.”
The veteran farmer explained that he’s spent a lifetime in the dairy industry and that he’s owned his current property for more than four decades. The hazards and physical requirements necessary to raise high-quality dairy cows became too daunting to overcome, according to Wells.
“At my age and at my wife’s age, if something was to happen to either one of us, for the other one to fill the other one’s role is tough to do in the dairy business. When the help [left], I [didn’t] have room for eight more hours of milking cows. I had the good help that was here for ten years. I just thought I’d get out on my terms, not on health terms. Just different. Don’t have to worry with the milking of the cows and the [absence of] hired help.”
“At one time there were four grade “A” dairies on Willow Creek and three on Ball Creek! This is so sad! Dairying has been a way of life for the families [for] many years. It is a job 365 days a year and sometimes 24 hours a day. You have to love it,” posted Margaret Duckett, another life-long dairy farmer and Wells’s neighbor, illuminating more of the situation facing the Wells, one very similar to one she had to deal with herself.
“I grew up on a dairy farm,” Duckett said. “My dad and grandmother had a dairy farm from the time I was very little and I helped during the time I was going to school.” She told the Leader that she used to “feed calves. I was in 4-H, showed calves, and just helped with milking in general.”
“I got married in ’69. Married my husband Mike, and in 1970 we started milking our own dairy [cows]. We were in the dairy business for 42 years [in the same area in Leicester where she now lives]. I grew up … about four or five miles from here. We dairied here, and we dairied for 42 years.
“We had Holstein [Friesian cattle, known as the highest-producing breed of cattle], Jerseys [smaller, cheaper cattle to maintain]. We had two children and they grew up helping in the dairy. They also played sports, but on the weekends they did the milking. They were in 4-H and they dairy judged. That was a big help to them today.”
She told the Leader that, in the recent past, her husband was diagnosed and eventually succumbed to cancer. In managing the bleak reality of the farm’s situation, the couple realized they couldn’t go on raising dairy cattle at the rate they were used to.
“My husband was diagnosed with cancer [and] we had to sell the herd. Not to pay for the treatment, but I just couldn’t take care of the cows [properly without him]. We didn’t want to not take care of the cattle the way we should. We sold the herd. We had right at 180 head at that time, and we sold them,” she recalled. She pivoted to the topic of Wells’s farm, explaining that the Wells both come from lifelong dairy stock, like herself.
“They [Wells] have already sold the herd. I can say, if his parents had a farm, he grew up in the dairy business and, of course, Rita [his wife] did too. Rita was from Madison County. They both grew up with the knowledge of the dairy.
“When they got married, they went into the dairy business themselves. Aubrey’s parents, during the time Aubrey was in high school, moved to Leicester and had a dairy there. Originally, Aubrey’s parents had a dairy here on the property that Aubrey has now. Aubrey bought that property and they built the dairy that they’ve operated for all these years. They’re getting to the age where they want to slow down.”
With Wells out of the dairy business, Duckett said that commercial dairy farming in the Leicester area has come to an end.