CARSON CITY — Molly (McCracken) Andersen of McCracken Girls’ Dairy and Farm is a standout in her career field. At 27, she is the primary operator of 100 head of dairy cattle on the family farm located on Mount Hope Road in Carson City.
As of 2012, only 10 percent of all farms in Montcalm County had a woman at the helm. According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, only 1.1 percent of all dairy farms in the country are run by women.
Andersen never imagined going into any other kind of work.
Her great-grandfather, Coyne McCracken, purchased what is currently McCracken Farms in 1934. Like her great-grandfather, grandfather, uncle and father before her, Andersen sees to the health of her cattle and milks them twice a day — every day — with two helpers.
Like all industries, dairy farming has changed since the McCrackens started 83 years ago. Cows are now milked by machine rather than by hand, though Molly and her parents, Curt and Crystal, all know how to milk by hand as well. And while larger farms make use of a straight line or milk line (moving of milk from the cow directly to the bulk tank), Andersen uses glass weigh bottles, which allows them to see the output and it then gets poured in a bulk tank. The farm averages between 60 and 80 pounds of milk every day.
While the farm could produce more milk, they choose to only milk twice a day and not push the herd too hard. Andersen also keeps newborn calves with their mothers longer than is typically the case with larger farms. McCracken Farms also keeps their heifers longer, usually six to nine years.
The dairy produced at McCracken Farms is shipped to Allendale and subsequently turned into cheese. They adhere to strict standards, as do all dairy farms, not altered with the use of hormones or antibiotics.
“It is illegal to do any kind of hormones with cows, and it has been that way ever since I got into dairy,” Andersen said. “I have a lot of people on top of me all the time, we get inspections almost once a month. People coming are making sure you are doing everything, — from state, local, from MMPA (Michigan Milk Producers
Association) — they monitor us to make sure we’re okay with the state.”
And with antibiotics, they are used only when necessary and that cow is pulled from the milking rotation for three days and the milk is tested every day. The couple of dollars it costs to test the milk is well worth it. Any milk that has a trace of antibiotics in it is called “hot milk” and is dumped. If a day’s milk isn’t tested at the farm, gets added to a tanker headed to production facilities and is deemed “hot,” it will cost the offending farm tens of thousands of dollars.
Part of seeing to it that consumers get safe and healthy dairy products is the Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA). MMPA is owned by dairy farmers in a cooperative. According to MMPA’s communications coordinator Allison Stuby Miller, there are approximately 2,000 member-owners based on 1,200 farms in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. Among those members is the McCracken family.
Stuby Miller notes that out of those 1,200 farms, 97 percent are family owned and operated. MMPA provides field representatives who assist members in providing high-quality product and animal care. All farms in MMPA are certified in the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management), according to Stuby Miller.
“We are also committed to serving the community and have made several milk donations to Michigan food banks, including 36,000 gallons to support residents in Flint following the water crisis,” Stuby Miller said. “A donation made in March (consisted) of almost 55,000 gallons of milk to the Food Bank Council of Michigan.”
It is this larger sense of community and being part of tradition that played a role in Andersen’s decision to carry on the family business. She is one of four daughters of Curt and Crystal McCracken. Curt started running the farm in 1981, after working for an elevator company and when his brother left the farm to work for the county. He currently grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, providing the feed for Andersen’s cattle.
It is a desire to keep the farm in the family and work the land that has been a part of their family for more than 80 years, that keeps McCracken and Andersen working long hours. It certainly isn’t to accumulate wealth, according to McCracken.
“If you’re out to make money,” McCracken said. “You don’t want to farm.”
That remark elicited laughter around the table of the McCracken home. They all acknowledged the greatest challenge in farming is balancing out financially. The cost of seed, equipment and maintenance quickly adds up.
“You have to be careful every time you make a decision,” Andersen said. “You have to figure it all out — what is the benefit? I think some people think farmers are rich because he have these expensive tractors.”
A typical day begins before 8 a.m. with the first milking at 9 a.m. and attending to chores including feeding the cows, cleaning the barns and the cows’ bedding before noon. Andersen usually lunches with her parents and then monitors the cows and does a second milking around 9 p.m. In addition to the physical labor, Andersen puts her business degree from Central Michigan University to use to run the farm. Balancing the books and keeping accurate records is the most challenging part of her career, according to Andersen. Despite some discouraging comments from CMU professors, Andersen charged ahead.
“I graduated top of my class at CMU and I had a lot of teachers ask what I wanted to do and got some smack from them, ‘Oh, you should be doing something better with your life,’ it was kind of a put-down and I was angry,” Andersen remarked. “You need to have educated people — it is a lot — I am still learning something new every day.”
The McCrackens recognize that farming is a challenging line of work, but also a very rewarding way of life. Andersen notes that it is hard work running a farm, but also remarked that it is fun. Crystal McCracken added that being able to be near family is what makes farming most endearing to her.