by Pettus Read
As the weather in our state during these next few months seems to turn more like conditions you would expect more so in the northern regions of our country, my thoughts often return back to the days at the barn when I was growing up on our family dairy farm in Middle Tennessee. The memories I have of those days cannot be cataloged as "the good old days" as some folks often refer to, but more so could be titled "the cold feet days" when two pairs of socks wasn't even enough to prevent your feet from becoming void of sensation. No, I do not look back on those winter days at the dairy barn as wonderful adventures, but more so opportunities to teach me to appreciate today's modern conveniences of central heat and plumbing. I did enjoy the farm life, but doing winter farming chores is tough hard work. I saw very little romance then in breaking ice with freezing hands and today the memory still has not changed.
Just like many dairy producers within our state, we no longer have the dairy, but the industry has generated billions of dollars over the years to Tennessee's economic activity and continues to do so. Last year, more than $127 million was put back into the state's economy by Tennessee's dairy production.
At the beginning of December, there were only 467 dairy farms in Tennessee compared to over 900 at the same time in the year 2000. Milk production in the state has dropped from an average of 2 billion pounds in 2000 to a total state production of 909 million pounds at the beginning of 2010.
Numbers and production continue to decrease around the state, but those Tennessee dairy farmers who remain still produce perhaps the safest food product consumed in this country. From the 53,000 milk cows located in Tennessee, consumers receive a nutritious product containing nine essential vitamins and minerals, including protein, calcium and vitamins A and D.
Even as dairy farm numbers have decreased within our state, a new dairy facility is currently under construction on the new 435-acre Middle Tennessee State University's School of Agribusiness and Agriscience Learning and Research Farm outside of Murfreesboro. On November 15, students, school officials, alumni, community leaders and farming neighbors gathered to see gold shovels dig in the soil on the farm by MTSU President Sidney McPhee and the agricultural school's director Dr. Warren Gill to break the ground for the state-of-the-art student operated dairy. The university has operated a dairy for the past 40 years supplying milk to the university and selling the surplus. When the new facilities are completed in April, operations will be moved from the old dairy some fifteen-plus miles away to begin the new venture.
"I say this with considerable pride: MTSU is the only university in the state of Tennessee where students milk cows and process the milk for the campus to drink," MTSU President McPhee said in his address at the November groundbreaking ceremony. "We will realize quick and meanful returns from this investment - through the enhanced opportunities it will offer our students and the work they will do here."
MTSU is still one of the few universities in the country that still operates a student manned processing facility that takes its own milk and bottles whole and chocolate milk for campus use. The school uses these facilities to prepare students for employment in the fields of food processing and food safety. Over the years, the school's agriscience and agribusiness students who have completed studies in this these fields have been in great demand by not only dairy processors, but other processors in the food industry as well.
"This facility is consistent with our mission and vision to provide a supportive learning environment," McPhee went on to say. "We are providing a student experience that is as personal and unique as our diverse campus population."
I'm told that many of the students who begin work at the dairy at 4:00 a.m., have never been associated with a dairy farm before. However, they will tell you that the experience has taught them a lot in responsibility, management, work ethic, getting along with others, understanding animals and appreciating the chance for working for their education. They are getting a chance to experience farm life from the "ground up" that many young people this day and time don't get the opportunity to do. And yes, it does get cold these January days out there, but just like me, they will develop an appreciation later on for a warm house.
What a concept for a growing university! A laboratory for students that provides a unique experience in a supportive learning environment that can be found nowhere else. It is literally a hands-on experience in an academic culture where one group of students feeds another. Now that's what I call real-world learning.