dsc_0156Georgia is squarely in the middle of the pack when it comes to milk production, but that’s good enough for a festival.

The first Saturday in June marked the 50th year of the Putnam County Dairy Festival, held in Eatonton, the birthplace of Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker, 78 miles east of Atlanta.

What struck this first-time visitor was farming’s low profile at the event. Corn dogs and $7 turkey legs were easy to spot, but good luck trying to find a milking demonstration.

Maybe that’s as it should be. Georgia’s milk output — 1.36 billion pounds a year — seems like a lot until you realize 24 states produce even more.

Since 1945, the number of Georgia dairy farms has fallen from more than 6,000 to 270. On the upside, the 21st century cow is more productive.

And even though Georgia lags the national average in per-capita milk production, most of its milk is sold out of state through cooperatives. Florida alone buys about 40 percent of what’s produced.

The state’s dairy farmers pay to import milk for consumption, so more often than not Georgians are drinking non-Georgia milk.

Putnam County ranks third in number of dairy farms and second in pounds of milk produced. Macon County, two hours south, is the leader in both categories.

Dairy farming in Putnam began in the 1880s when Benjamin Hunt, a dairy scientist and New York native, married an Eatonton woman and moved to Georgia, bringing with him a herd of Jersey cows, according to a history compiled by the Eaton Messenger and Lake Oconee News.

The first festival took place in 1952. Reaching the half-century mark took 57 years because several times the festival was suspended.

Although the Census says Putnam is 74 percent white and 12.4 percent black, it seemed half the festival visitors were non-white, strolling past booths whose flags and T-shirts celebrate the Confederacy. That was an odd juxtaposition in the time of Obama, and showed how rural Georgia thumbs its nose at national trends and political correctness.

dsc_0176At the same time, the festival did acknowledge Putnam’s cultural diversity. Music performances in front of the courthouse, just yards from Bre’r Rabbit, Harris’ Uncle Remus character, featured country, bluegrass and acappella gospel.

The Dorsey brothers sang the spirituals. Ed Dorsey, 81, the oldest, said he began harmonizing at four and coaxed his siblings to join him.

Decades later, their sounds of “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” and “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around” sweetened the air.

Top photo: Confederate flags are an odd juxtaposition at the festival.

Bottom photo: Moses and Ed Dorsey, acappella singers.

Facts About Milk: According to industry experts, projections for Georgia through 2020 show a continued decline in milk production. Georgia, along with most other Southeastern states, is a milk-deficit state, meaning it does not produce enough milk to supply its own population. As of 2006 the state produces less than 300 pounds per capita, while the nation’s average is 581 pounds per capita. Ironically, about 40 percent of Georgia’s milk is shipped to Florida, with Georgia’s needs being met by milk shipped from other states.
In 1945 every county in Georgia had at least one dairy farm, for a total of 6,040 farms with 360,000 cows producing approximately 1 billion pounds of milk (3,150 pounds of milk per cow) annually. The greatest number and concentration of dairies were in the counties surrounding Atlanta and in northwest Georgia.

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Kevin Duffy

Kevin Duffy

Kevin Duffy is a former reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he worked for 25 years before recently accepting a buyout offer. His last assignment was to cover the housing meltdown. Kevin and his wife, CNN editor Moni Basu, have lived in Atlanta's Inman Park neighborhood for 12 years.