Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. Listen to the audio essay below.
When the night is still black and the stars are still awake, Kevin Wilkerson walks out to milk his cows. His arrival at the barn does more than earn him a living: it continues an Ozarks legacy.
"It's all I've ever done. Been doing it, as far as a job, since as soon as I got out of high school -- 39 years," says Kevin.
He represents at least the third generation of his family to milk cows as a business venture, dating to the days when Missouri was one of the country’s largest dairy producers.
“Everybody used to milk, and they were part of everybody,” he says.
In the past, they were one family operation among hundreds that dotted the Ozarks. Today, the Wilkersons’ rural Greene County farm is an exception. Their operation, built on land that the family homesteaded in 1856, is one of only a handful of small dairy farms that remain.
"It was somewhere in the neighborhood of over 400 (farms) back in the '70s when we were really at the height of the dairy deal here," he says. "There's 10 left in Greene County, last I knew."
The barn where he and his cows spend so much time – twice a day, every day -- was built by Kevin’s father in 1947. Outside the barn in the predawn hours, a bright light shines down above the door, illuminating a sign that issues a warning: “Beware of attack cow.”
But while Kevin definitely recalls that cows have stepped on his feet a time or three, the large black and white animals don’t look too scary, and the Wilkersons raised them all themselves.
They come inside a few at a time, walking near where Kevin’s father’s name is etched in concrete. They place their heads in the metal stanchions. After their udders are sanitized, machinery is attached to milk them. It flows overhead to a tank in another room, where it’s frequently picked up to be hauled to the processing plant.
"My milk right now is going to Hiland," says Kevin. "They've got some sort of deal with Chipotle restaurants. They want milk that comes from pasture cows, not drylot cows, to make cheese for their restaurants. I had to sign a contract that my cows are out on pasture, and I don't use hormones."
Like the traffic that now buzzes by in front of the Century Farm sign on Highway 125, much in the dairy industry has changed with time. An example is the barn, which retains its old bones, but has evolved with changing regulations. There were switches between Grade A milk to Grade C milk, which is used for products such as cheese, and back to Grade A. Kevin mentions the stanchions, which have gone from wood to metal. He also tells of when the aforementioned metal tank, in another part of the barn, replaced the milk cans they formerly used.
Kevin says that the drastic reduction in the number of local dairy farms over the 40 years he’s has been in the business is tied to a number of reasons. He tells of the government’s buyouts of local dairymen years ago because it was thought there was too much milk available. Nowadays, he notes that Missouri is considered a deficit state that doesn’t produce enough to meet local demand -- so milk is trucked in from other states.
"Most of the milk that comes in up here at Hiland, they bring in on transports out of Oklahoma and Texas," says Kevin. "We're a deficit state now; we don't produce enough to provide for the people in Missouri."
Further change is evident through milk production, which is often centralized at large farms, making it difficult for small operations to compete. Nowadays, the only place the Wilkersons can sell their milk is Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), which then coordinates its use.
"DFA is the only source to sell to now, so if they decide at some point they're not going to, we'll just be out of luck," says Kevin.
But despite these challenges, Kevin continues in the dairy business. His son does, too, and may continue the operation for another generation. The fact that they possess the land, livestock and know-how puts them in a rare position, and may allow them to continue when others couldn’t even start in the first place. Because unless you have those things, it’s just too difficult to start a small dairy farm nowadays.
Beyond that, though, dairy farming is a lifestyle. Milking comes twice a day, every single day, and the commitment is something many don't care for.
"There's a lot of downsides to it but, I don't know, it's just what I enjoy," says Kevin.
For Kevin, the legacy is simply part of life.
"You're not going to get rich doing it -- just making a living," he says.