The county is rated 15th in the nation in dairy production and is also the only Minnesota county in the top 20. While this may come as surprise to many who regard the Midwest as the breadbasket of the nation, much of U.S. dairy production takes place on the west coast. Seven of the top 20 counties are in California. Five of these leading counties are in Wisconsin. Two are in Texas. New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Washington, along with Minnesota, have one county in 1996's top 20.
Stearns County has always had a lot of dairy cows, according to Jim Salser, an educator at the extension office. Stearns is also a fairly large county, which means that more cows can be raised and milked here.
Dairy farming is somewhat traditional, Salser said. The farm and the dairy herds get passed from one generation to the next, so once dairy farming starts in an area, it tends to stay strong.
Another reason for Stearns County's dairy stability is the infrastructure. The county's two cheese plants, AMPI in Paynesville and Kraft in Melrose, keep up competition for dairy products. Also, the cheese market has seen rapid growth.
While popular opinion might say California's burgeoning dairy industry has advantages over the Midwest dairy industry because it is accessible to the west coast population, Salser has a different view. If these dairy farmers want to access the east coast, which is also a large market, they're at a disadvantage. Whereas Stearns County is in the middle and accessible to both coastal markets.
Although dairy farming has stayed strong in Stearns County, the number of dairy farms has been steadily decreasing since the advent of rural electricity in the 1920s and 1930s. REAs (rural electric associations) brought about a "dramatic" revolution in the dairy industry, Salser said. Machines running on electricity could replace manpower so farms were able to expand their herds and acreages without increasing hired help.
Many would-be farmers decided there was a better way to earn a living than through the long hours and hard work that accompany farming. The trend continues today. More farmers are retiring than starting up farming. Technologial innovations allow herd sizes to continue increasing, with some herds so large that milking parlors run 24 hours per day to keep up.
Stearns County is situated in a dairy belt that runs along the Mississippi River. The rolling hills have made grazing more feasible than crop production from the early days of farming.
Stearns still has, by far, the largest dairy industry in the state. At 1,200 herds, Stearns has more herds than 33 other states, Salser said. More than one million pounds of milk were produced in Stearns County last year. The next-highest producing county is nearly 500,000 pounds behind Stearns.
In 1995, there were 1,305 dairy farms in Stearns County. The majority of these were Grade A farms. Minnesota had 11,420 dairy farms in 1995.
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