Close your eyes and picture a dairy farm. Go on. Do you see a little red barn with a herd of cows grazing in a green pasture? An older farmer, perhaps in overalls and carrying a pitchfork, bedding down the barn with straw. It's a familiar image to many of us, but the thing is, this is mostly the stuff of nursery rhymes.
"Forget what you learned about dairy farming growing up," says Burli Hopkins. "Most of it isn’t true."
Burli is the owner and operator of Green Acres Farm, the largest dairy farm in the state of Delaware. He works side-by-side with his dad, Walter C. Hopkins, Sr., milking 575 cows, raising another 500 or so heifers and tilling 1,000 acres of corn, alfalfa and grass. The crops become feed for the cows, which in turn produce more than 12 million pounds of milk a year.
For generations, Burli's family has been carrying on the farming tradition, started by Burli’s great grandfather, Alden Hopkins in 1915. In 1942, Burli's grandfather, William Hopkins, moved the dairy to its present location. Then in the mid-70s, Burli's dad came back from college and took over the business. Burli makes it a fourth-generation farm, and his kids will make it a fifth.
"I think we're still in this business because we know cows, we understand the agronomy side and then we also understand the business side," Burli says. "We know cost of production, we know labor costs, feed costs. By doing things like this, we've been able to keep our heads above water. I think there are a lot of great farmers, they really understand cows, but they don't understand the business side."
Burli says what's changed and what's remained the same on the dairy over the generations has been a mix. Cows are still cows, and keeping them comfortable and happy is still key to running a successful dairy farm. But today's cows are producing more milk, better corn and feed has increased milk production, and better business sense makes a big difference in the dairy's success.
"I think a modern farmer is a businessperson. I have to be able to go into the office, understand accounting, trade, interest. I also have to understand all my animals. Farmers, these folks have to know the farm, milk cows, drive tractors and run the ins-and-outs of the business."
As for what’s next, Burli hopes the farm will stay in the family.
"My dad will always be here for me as consultant," says Burli. "He's that wealth of knowledge I can tap in to. My sons, they've worked for me for quite a few years. My oldest is currently studying ag business, which I personally like. I know he knows cows. I know he knows this land. That's stuff he can learn here on the job. But having that business sense and knowledge is important. It's going to be even more important to the next generation."