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Illinois Dairy Farm Ends Milking Days

09:37AM May 30, 2014

A Lake County, Ill., family dairy is calling it quits after more than 140 years of farming.
By: Mick Zawislak, Arlington Heights Daily Herald

The milking barn was cleaned that morning but the air remained pungently reminiscent of the Holsteins that for generations had been the focus at the Diebold farm.

About a week earlier, the last of the milking cows were sold, ending a long tradition of family dairying in Lake County, Ill. The old stanchions -- 13 on each side -- where the cows would be secured for milking and two stalls at the end of the ancient barn had literally become history.

"Everybody my age basically quit," said George Diebold, who at 66 has the creaky knees and back that come with a lifetime of milking, twice a day, every day, and growing and harvesting hay and corn for feed. "There's a few who farm but nobody wants to milk cows."

At one time, there were many processing plants and hundreds of dairy farms in Lake County, said Greg Koeppen, manager of the Lake County Farm Bureau.

Some were large farms and others had only a few cows to produce milk for the family or as barter for other goods, he said. The Diebold farm, which was settled in 1872, was the last true family dairy operation.

"It's the end of a long era in Lake County," Koeppen said.

That also means the age-old Diebold family practice of moving the herd to pasture in spring and summer along Fremont Center Road -- much to the delight of onlookers and the occasional police escort -- has become another footnote.

Virginia, the family matriarch who died about five years ago, relished that duty well into her 80s. Sometimes, people would bring their kids to watch and take pictures.

"It's kind of strange," George Diebold said of the quiet, empty barn. "Now, you walk in and you know they're not here."

Golden Oaks Farm in Wauconda is now the last dairy operation in Lake County, Koeppen said, but it is a corporate concern run by hired managers and employees. The modern, computerized operation with three milkings a day attracts visitors from around the world, Koeppen said.

"It's not what we would classify as a family farm," he said.

To get a sense of how long the Diebolds have endured, consider that the dairy barn was remodeled in 1933 with concrete replacing the dirt floor and metal stalls replacing wooden ones. The date is etched in the foundation for posterity.

At its peak, the Diebold farm had about 40 milking cows. George Diebold, who was born and raised there, said he has been cutting back the past few years due to a combination of age and economics.

He used to sell to a dairy plant that supplied Dean Foods, but its operators wanted a premium to pick up his milk.

"The trucks didn't want to come this far because there was no one else," Diebold said. "We just phased out slowly."

Diebold cows could produce as much as 400 gallons of milk every two days. It is something the family will miss, said George's sister, Mary Lou.

"That's what we were raised on," she said. "That's going to be an adjustment."

President of the Lake County Heritage Farm Foundation Nancy Schumm said the demise of the family farm is ironic, given the emphasis these days on local crops and markets.

The span of generations is also a significant characteristic that is disappearing, she added.

"To me, it's kind of sad because it signals the end of something that was a priority years ago," Schumm said.

Diebold, whose great grandfather established the farm, considers himself semiretired.

He'll still work the grounds, plant, harvest and bale hay, grow corn and soybeans, tend to the remaining heifers and maintain the 10 buildings on the property among other duties.

"It's still a full-time job but it's part time from what I was doing," he said.