LEWISTON, MINN. — Dairy farmer Carey Tweten leans back and doffs his dusty baseball cap, explaining the latest ax to fall on his family farm.
It's not just the potential loss of milk in schools or plummeting prices that worry him, but troubles facing the farm's buyer, the historic Hastings Creamery.
The creamery buys from dozens of Minnesota and Wisconsin dairy farmers and daily processes 150,000 pounds of raw milk at its plant, which was built in 1955. Since June, however, that facility has been cut off from the sewer after repeated wastewater violations.
According to Met Council estimates, over Mother's Day weekend, more than 14,000 gallons of raw milk and 6,000 gallons of cream leaked from the creamery's tanks, sending a frothy foam river through aeration tanks — clogging up the Hastings Wastewater Treatment Plant, which feeds into the Mississippi River.
For now, the creamery is hauling wastewater to a plant in St. Paul, the Met Council said.
The interruption is a more than an inconvenience in a dairy industry that operates under an often ruthless economic paradigm. In 2019 alone, Minnesota lost more than 300 dairy farms. Expansion can breathe new life into one farm, while those larger herds can gobble up neighbors' milk contracts.
"We continue to work with the Hastings Creamery, the city of Hastings, and Minnesota Department of Agriculture to find a solution that supports local milk producers while protecting community water supply," the Met Council said in a statement.
Tweten, 41, cited a Minnesota Department of Agriculture statistic noting that a dairy cow spurs $25,000 of economic impact in a small town.
"I don't think the Met Council really understood the ramifications of what that does for the operations out there and then we can't take our milk there and get it processed," Tweten said.
The creamery told the Met Council it did not know how much was leaked, admitting staff didn't keep logs. It also was not the company's first violation; concerns about the creamery's discharges surfaced last fall.
So in early June, the Met Council — which oversees the sewer — kicked the creamery off the sewer for 30 days. Under state law, dairy products are not allowed to be dumped raw into the sewer, lest they obstruct the system. Council staff described samples collected as white in color and giving off a sour smell.
Hastings Creamery did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the Met Council said the company is working toward compliance.
Still, the council's decision to protect the sewer's safety record (and by and large the city's water supply) could be devastating for some farm families, such as the Twetens. In the linked system of America's dairyland, rural farmers' livelihoods are often tethered to urban tastes and public health regulations.
The slowing of milk orders from Hastings comes at an already difficult time for America's dairies, with images filling social media of dairies pouring out milk into fields.
In a recent blog post titled "Is this the End of Our Family's Farm?," Tweten's wife, Emily, who grew up a dairy farm, wrote: "This week it's two local dairy farms, but next week, it could very easily be the next dairy farm down the road."
In February, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials floated a possible new nutrition rule for school lunches that would de-list chocolate and strawberry milk, with officials citing the sugary additives' role in the childhood obesity epidemic. The rule, which has yet to be finalized, has drawn some rebukes, including from Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, who wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, noting more than two-thirds of schoolchildren do not receive adequate dairy during the day.
Tweten is exasperated over the proposed rule.
"It's one of the most nutritious things that they're going to give kids that don't have the opportunity to get it at all," he said.
The family wonders if they need to do what some of their neighbors have and sell off cows. As profit margins shrank over the last decade, the Twetens expanded, now reaching a herd of 800 cows. They've built new barns and raised a family. Emily manages a blog and posts videos of her horse trailer renovation on YouTube.
The young family might be the modern ideal of bucolic, country living, but it's often hard to sustain.
Their town of Lewiston lost an implement dealer and a grocery store over a decade ago. To hit a supermarket, the Twetens drive to St. Charles or sometimes grab dinner at the Kwik Trip in town.
Then there's the mounting pressure to minimize the operation's carbon footprint, a tension that grates on Carey Tweten.
"People who believe that wholeheartedly that a Tesla or a windmill or any of that stuff is 100% green, they're fooling themselves," Tweten said. "Is there a bigger picture to why people don't want animal agriculture?"
Like many businesses, the plea for more labor in farm country is also sharp. And, finally, there's the low milk prices.
Minnesota dairy farms primarily produce milk for cheese and butter. Nathan Hulinsky, a University of Minnesota Extension educator out of St. Cloud, said prices for such milk classes in 2023 have been "kind of ugly."
In 2022, all milk prices fetched dairy farmers $24 to $27 a hundredweight. Milk for cheese hit just above $15 a hundredweight at the end of last week.
"We just have a lot of milk out on the market, so when one plant shuts down, there's not a lot of options for farmers to go," Hulinsky said.
Hastings Creamery's owner, Justin Malone, told KARE-11 News earlier this month that the company was not aware the 1955 plant's discharges were "in violation of the permit." Malone and other farmers from northern Minnesota bought the creamery in 2021.
"We're not blaming that on anyone," he said. "We're just trying to partner with Met Council and get things where they can be OK."
Down in Lewiston on the farm, the summer routine continues. The kids are off from school, one out to church camp. On Wednesdays, they set up for the regular Lewiston farmers market.
Meanwhile, the farm's future hovers in the air.
The Holsteins in the nearby barn take turns rubbing up against a large brush.
"That's like their spa," said Emily Tweten, as she stood at the edge of the barn watching her husband drive the skid loader to push feed to the black-and-white cows.
"People need to know what's going on and the reality that we're not just trying to protect our family and our farm," she said. "But also the people who need to eat, the people in poverty, and our communities that are affected when agriculture goes out."