First, the question posed recently to American Agriculturist 's Profit Planner panel by a young farmer in Northeast Pennsylvania: "We farm 260 acres with 170 acres owned. Dad and I milk 85 cows in an older tie-stall barn, and he's ready to turn the farm over to me. But I don't want to milk cows forever. I want an alternative my kids want to grow into. What do you see as the most promising enterprise in this region for the next 10 years?"
Consider these excerpts of advice for this young farmer from the panel:
Mike Evanish, farm business consultant for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau: To make more money per acre, you must move the sale of what you produce closer to the final consumer. If your farm is located at an Interstate exit, a roadside market selling fresh produce, having a bakery and perhaps organic beef might make sense. If your farm is located miles from transportation and population centers, and has poor soils and wet weather; dairying may be the only choice.
Whatever enterprise is chosen, make sure it's based on solid budgets, pricing history and forecasts. It also must be based on a deep family commitment to producing something everyone really wants to produce.
Dale Johnson, University of Maryland Extension farm management specialist: Those cows may look like "devils" in a figurative sense. But maybe you're just not looking at them from the right perspective.
But they may look like angels in a different setting – bucolic pastures – intensive grazing. Imagine yourself on a pleasant spring afternoon, gazing out at your colored cow dairy herd contently harvesting their own feed and spreading their own manure. In a couple of hours, you'll go out and open the gate and they'll follow you into a new swing parlor where you'll actually enjoy milking them.
Going organic or developing a local processing business, you may connect with local consumers. You're biggest problem may be your children wanting you to retire so they can take over.
George Mueller, western New York dairy farmer: Some 54 years ago, I faced the same choice. While an 85-cow herd is viable today, transitioning to a larger freestall facility and herd may still be the handwriting on the wall.
Try new things. Keep good books and know where the profits are. Let the wisdom of the free market guide you in our wonderful occupation called farming.
Glenn Rogers, University of Vermont Extension retiree, farmer and consultant: Thousands of others are looking for the same elusive answer. Do what you do best and what you and your family want to do within your resources. Consider niche crops that might work in your area.
Return on investment and profit margins are higher with retail, but so investment cost are also likely to be higher. Be sure to have fun while you're growing your future business.
Catch their full commentaries on the best path advised for this young farmer's future in the soon-to-arrive May issue of American Agriculturist.
Editor's note: Robotic milking systems are revolutionizing Northeast dairy farms of all sizes. Its size-neutral technology designed to reduce labor costs. We'll have a special feature on dairy robotics in the June issue.