Manatee County dairyman Jerry Dakin named Florida's Farmer of the Year

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Dakin Dairy Farms owner Jerry Dakin is Florida's 2021 Farmer of the Year. He established his dairy farm in rural Manatee County just two decades ago.
Dakin Dairy Farms owner Jerry Dakin is Florida's 2021 Farmer of the Year. He established his dairy farm in rural Manatee County just two decades ago.

MYAKKA CITY – Jerry Dakin's cows have produced milk that helped feed families across the state for decades. Now, the longtime Manatee County dairyman has been recognized as Florida's Farmer of the Year.

Every day, Dakin and his crew work to produce milk from a herd of 4,000 cows and calves on his Myakka City farm in the heart of rural Manatee County.

Dakin also bottles his own milk-based products. While not uncommon for dairy farmers to own and operate an all-encompassing operation, most farmers tend to join co-ops or sell their milk or produce to wholesale markets.

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Dakin said he was humbled to be selected from the 43,000 farms in the state. But it comes at a difficult time for the industry, which has faced significant challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“We are survivors,” Dakin said. “This last year and a half have been the biggest challenge of my life in this business.”

Dakin Dairy Farms owner Jerry Dakin is Florida's 2021 Farmer of the Year. He established his dairy farm in rural Manatee County just two decades ago.
Dakin Dairy Farms owner Jerry Dakin is Florida's 2021 Farmer of the Year. He established his dairy farm in rural Manatee County just two decades ago.

Dakin has earned many accolades, but he said Farmer of the Year could be his greatest. He also has served on the Manatee County Farm Bureau board since 2001 and has been a member of the Manatee County Cattlemen’s Association since 2004. Last year, he was inducted into the Manatee County Agriculture Hall of Fame.

As this year's recipient, Dakin will represent Florida in a competition next October against farmers from nine other states for the Swisher Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award in Moutrie, Georgia.

Dakin's passion, commitment to educating the public, and the efficiency of his dairy farm earned him the nomination from Florida Farm Bureau District Supervisor Andy Neuhofer.

“I have been after him for several years actually,” Neuhofer said. “He not only is running a dairy operation, but he is trying to capture the value of the retail. He took a big financial risk, not only to start the dairy farm but to expand it into producing products.”

A calf at Dakin Dairy Farms.
A calf at Dakin Dairy Farms.

A lifelong passion for farming

Dakin has been farming his entire life. His dad started a farm in the Parrish area in the mid-1960s, and eventually, the farm was taken over by Dakin and his brother.

In 1997, he split off and started his own operation with 237 cows. Dakin grew his herd to 750 cows, and in 2001 bought the Dakin Dairy Farm property in the outskirts of Myakka City in Manatee County. In 2011, he built his milk processing plant, and today, he and his staff produce and distribute 15,000 gallons of milk per day from his dairy farm.

“That was a big jump for me,” Dakin said. “I knew the dairying and everything, but when I went into the milk plant business and bottling the milk, that was one of the biggest challenges of my life. It grew me more than anything.”

The farm produces milk and dairy products from start to finish on site. Dakin grows grass year-round on his property to feed the cows, milks the cows, pasteurizes and packages the milk, makes different products like cheese curds, eggnog and buttermilk, and ships them off to retailers around the state.

The entrance to the market, cafe and offices at Dakin Dairy Farms.
The entrance to the market, cafe and offices at Dakin Dairy Farms.

The farm features a small cafe where visitors can buy breakfast, lunch, and ice cream, a market that offers dairy products like milk and cheese curds, and also offers educational tours for the public.

But COVID-19 has created significant challenges for the industry, first with a sudden drop in demand when businesses ground to a halt, and now with labor shortages that have become more prevalent.

“When COVID hit, the cows didn't stop milking,” Dakin said. “We had to dump 12 semi loads of milk, and the cost of losing it. We can't get parts for our equipment. Now we struggle with trucks. Every week there is something. It's just a challenge.”

The industry also is facing pressure from other food-producing countries, many of which have less stringent regulation, and although he said local food is among the “best in the world,” Dakin said local farmers struggle to compete because imported food is less expensive.

“Farmers are giving their land up because they can't make it,” Dakin said. “If they sold their land for development, if they were generating enough revenue they would move out and build another farm. But there's no revenue in it, and farmers have been so beat down and worked so hard, that it's getting to where the younger generation does not want to do what their parents did with their struggles and everything, so a lot of that knowledge is going away.”

It takes more than 30 workers to farm, milk, process and sell products from Dakin Dairy Farms daily. A worker is shown processing cheese curds.
It takes more than 30 workers to farm, milk, process and sell products from Dakin Dairy Farms daily. A worker is shown processing cheese curds.

As for Dakin, he is too passionate to ever quit farming. Instead, he said that as Florida's Farmer of the Year, he aims to use his platform to educate residents about the importance of supporting local food producers.

“The biggest thing for me is to advocate to the people that we need to do everything we can to keep our food in America,” Dakin said. “My biggest fear is that we won't be able to feed ourselves. We have the best food there is, we have the strongest regulation there is, and it scares me that we are giving that away.”

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Manatee County dairy farmer wins Farmer of the Year, runs Myakka City farm