Oktibbeha County, Miss., was once known as The Dairy Center of the South, boasting more than 1,000 dairies, several milk processing plants and creameries, and herds of the finest dairy animals anywhere.

Now, abandoned silos dot the landscape, and much of the rolling land has been put in trees, or is home to beef cow herds, or has been developed.

Of those many hundreds of dairy enterprises, just one commercial operation is left — McReynolds Dairy.

John T. McReynolds, who milked his first cow at age 6 on his father’s farm, is the lone survivor of the county’s once-teeming industry (Mississippi State University has a dairy just up the road from him, but all its milk is used by the university’s Dairy Sciences Department).

“I’m 75 years old, and I know I can’t keep at this forever,” he says. “I’ve been dairying, off and on, for 40 years, and every year it becomes more of a challenge. Because there are only a handful of dairies left in this part of the state, it’s very difficult to get equipment serviced, large animal veterinarians are becoming scarcer and scarcer, and there isn’t a support infrastructure for the business any more.

“It just isn’t a career that young folks want to get; it’s demanding, confining work —hot in the summer, cold in the winter, muddy when it rains, dry as dust when it doesn’t.”

But, he says with a glint in his eyes, “That first cow I ever milked as a boy — I loved it! Our family had been dairying here for several generations. My father, who worked for the Federal Land Bank for 38 years, had a Jersey herd in the late 1930s on land that is now Plantation Homes subdivision. There were five of us kids and we milked by hand and put the milk out on the road twice daily for the truck to pick up.

“In the mid-1940s, Daddy got out of dairying, but by then I had dairy projects in the 4-H Club, raising cows, milking them, and showing them. When I got into high school, though, the cows competed with football and other activities, and I talked Daddy into letting me sell them so I’d have more time for my (he laughs) studies.”

He later went to Mississippi State, earned a degree in general agriculture, then farmed for a while with his father, who by then had a 600-head herd of registered Angus. He went back to the university and earned a master’s in agricultural economics.

“At the end of World War II,” McReynolds says, “there were 27,000 Jersey cows in this county and every hill had a dairy barn on it. A lot of the milk produced here had gone to the war effort. Borden had a huge milk processing plant here and there were other plants and several creameries.”