CARPIO, N.D. Garnet Bloms calls the cows she milks ''Girlie,'' but she calls herself the ''Cow Lady.''
''I'm just an old great-grandma who milks cows,'' said Bloms, 73, who's milked thousands of cows over the last 52 years on her farm in northwestern North Dakota. ''That's what an old farm wife is supposed to do.''
But the Cow Lady is part of a vanishing tradition. Small, family-run dairy farms are disappearing in North Dakota as the aging farmers who started them retire or die off. Increasingly, these small farms are being replaced by large commercial operations instead of being taken over by a family member.
''Ten years ago there were 33 of us around here,'' said Bloms' son, Bruce, who took over the farm after his father Henry died in 1999. ''There's only 11 of us left.'' In September alone, two of the Bloms' neighbors closed their dairies down.
Statewide statistics echo Bloms' observations. In 1991, North Dakota had 2,100 dairy farms, but today there are just 438, according to J.W. Schroeder, a North Dakota State Uni-versity Extension Service dairy specialist in Fargo.
''In the last 12 years, we have lost 5 to 15 percent per year,'' Schroeder said.
The average age of a dairy farmer in North Dakota is 60. ''Our industry is at retirement age,'' Schroeder said.
The replacement of family farms with commercial operations began in North Dakota 10 years ago, he added, and the state is now home to about eight ''megadairies'' with more than 500 milk cows apiece, Schroeder said.
While Garnet Bloms says low milk prices have forced some of the small farms out of business, there's another, larger trend at work. Few younger families are willing to be tied to an operation seven days a week.
The Bloms, for example, opened their dairy in 1951 as newlyweds. They had no electricity, running water or tractor. ''I thought it was the end of the world,'' Garnet Bloms said.
But they stuck it out, and together she and her husband built a thriving business. The dairy went from three-legged stools to a near fully mechanized operation, able to run 61 cows through the milking parlor in just a few hours.
''It took us 23 years before we could leave and take a trip,'' she said. ''People don't want to work that hard anymore. Times have changed, and not for the better, either.''
People can still make a good living working small dairy farms, Schroeder said, but Garnet Bloms is right about people not wanting to work as hard as they used to.
''She's been bending down on her cows for more than 50 years,'' said Schroeder, who has never met Garnet but knows who she is. ''She has a strong work ethic and the hardiness of many of the people who first came to this area to work.''
Bloms Dairy is nestled in the hills north of Lake Darling. The dairy's freshly painted red and white fences and barns could grace a picture book. The Bloms had five children, 20 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
''We raised five kids out here, put them to work, gave them a set of muscles and sent them off,'' Garnet Bloms said.
Bruce Bloms, who also raises beef cattle and crops, says he wants to get out of the dairy business in four years, when he turns 55. He hopes his son will take over.
Garnet Bloms also would like to see her grandson carry on the family tradition so she could also stay on ''to keep the ball rolling.'' She still milks cows twice a day, several times a week, sharing the duties with her son and his family.
''She's a good cleaner, a good cook and a good milker,'' Bruce Bloms said.
''Until my health says I can't, I want to stay right here and milk,'' Garnet Bloms said. ''Every morning I wake up and I thank the Lord that I have another day to milk cows.''
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