The dairy industry has been around for hundreds of years, and while much has changed, the basics remain the same — farmers raise and care for the cows, the cows produce milk, and the milk is sold to pay the bills.
The industry has struggled with peaks and valleys over the years, but now more than ever, keeping local dairy operations viable has become a difficult challenge. Farmers are calling for changes, because without them, many say local farms will not survive much longer.
In an industry vital to feeding America, what has changed to make the business so difficult?
LouAnn Parish is a dairy farmer in Adams and a member of the Agri-Mark Dairy Co-op. She and her husband have felt the intense pressures to stay afloat in the dairy farm business.
“Something has to get done or we all lose our business. I don’t think I’ll be here by the end of the year,” she said. This is largely caused by the milk market, which Mrs. Parish refers to as “broken.”
William Stine is an organic dairy farmer in Redwood. His family has been farming for five generations, and Mr. Stine has known no other lifestyle.
He explains why the market is as bad as it is right now: “I guess the simple answer is, just incredible overproduction. We’re producing probably the most perishable product in commodity land, and we’ve gotten very, very good at doing what we’re doing.”
Brien L. Tabolt is the general manager of the Lowville Producers Co-op. His job is to ensure the product the 144 member farms are producing is quality, and then to market that milk. The co-op is also feeling the pain of the milk market’s dip.
THE PRODUCTION PROBLEM
“This co-op, in a good year, can do $76 million for milk receipts paid to the farmer. Lately, it’s down to around $60 million, which is basically a break-even point for the farmers, and in many cases, not even a break-even point,” he said. “Farmers have become too efficient. They already have more milk than they can handle. You’ve probably heard of milk being dumped and warehouses of cheese filling up.”
But slowing production is not an option for these farmers. Dallen Farney is a partner at Silvery Falls Farm in Lowville, where he and his family manage 280 cows. He said other industries are able to handle a falling market, but farmers cannot.
“Ford doesn’t make trucks when they don’t have a market for it, but unfortunately you can’t just shut off a cow on Sunday if you can’t ship the milk,” he said.
Mr. Tabolt and the Lowville Producers Co-op are trying relentlessly to get farmers more for their milk, but “those opportunities just haven’t come about, and probably won’t until milk gets down a little closer to demand. It’s too easy for big processors to say, ‘If I can’t get your milk at the right price, there’s another co-op right down the road that I can buy it cheaper from.’”
And there is. Patrick Grimshaw is a member of the Jefferson Bulk Co-op. His milk is priced at about $13 per 100 pounds of milk, which is still very low, because he has been a co-op member for several years. However, farmers trying to get into a co-op now to market their milk aren’t as lucky.
Dairy farmers are still taking amounts well below their cost of production because they desperately need the market a co-op can supply.
“People are afraid to lose their milk market if they put up too much of a fuss, because they’ll get dropped,” Mr. Grimshaw said.
This overproduction and lack of market for milk has thrown most dairy farmers deep into debt, often causing emotional distress and affecting personal life.
“I only milk 350 cows and I’ve already borrowed $600,000 to pay my bills within the last six months,” Mr. Grimshaw said. He’s not alone in his struggle.
“I’m minus-$650 in my bank account,” Mrs. Parish said, frustrated. “I can’t eat, I can’t afford to fix the kitchen sink that’s been broken for eight months. I have been washing dishes in the barn sink. I had to buy a loaf of bread using the penny change in my car.”
AN EMOTIONAL TOIL
Mr. Tabolt frequently hears his co-op farmers suffering emotionally from debt they are increasingly drowning in.
“I get phone calls every week with farmers not able to pay their bills, asking what else they can do. Farm wives will call me up crying on the phone because her husband had to let the hired man go because they can no longer pay him.,” he said “It’s not a good situation out there right now; they’re going further and further into debt. Older farmers are using their retirement to stay going.”
Mr. Farney, only 28 years old, came into the farming business as his family was about to sell the farm due to financial hurdles.
“I think financial struggles just snowball into debt. That’s where other farmers get depressed,” he said.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veteran Affairs showed suicide rates for farmers were higher than that of war veterans in recent years.
John Peck is the owner-operator of Peck Homestead in Champion, where his family has been farming since 1825. He is candid about the topic of farmer depression and suicide, though farmers are often stereotyped as reserved on displaying emotions.
Mr. Peck recalls one instance in 2009 when a New York farmer killed all of his cows, then himself after becoming depressed over his debt and failing farm.
“I’m depressed more about the situation that we’ve been going through in that people still don’t care, still don’t pay attention and the only way we get media attention that we’ve been in a downward cycle is when farmers were committing suicide this winter,” he said. “That pisses me off.”
Mr. Tabolt agreed the hardships farmers face aren’t often addressed.
“I don’t think the average public has any idea of the hardships. Some people know farms and know they’re having a tough time, but most farmers don’t want to tell anybody they’re really hard up. They’re proud people. If they’re having real financial troubles, they just don’t say anything to anybody,” he said.
Kirk Herse, of Adams, however, is not afraid to say something. His farm went bankrupt in 2006, and he said the bank claimed all of his animals and equipment, and police came to repossess them. Mr. Herse has been an activist for small dairy farms ever since.
“The second week in June a statement was released where Governor Cuomo asked, ‘Why aren’t farmers asking for help?’ and we had these letters sent in asking for help dated in March,” Mr. Herse said, waving papers in his hand.
“It’s a Mafia,” he said, referring to the government. “The farm credit system is controlled by the government, they’re the mob bosses. The DFA, Dairy Farmers of America, is being puppeted,” Mr. Herse said.
He, Mr. Grimshaw and Mrs. Parish believe the government needs to be exposed for trying to get rid of small farms to replace them with corporate ones through selective financing, a push for over-supply and using taxpayer money for grants. They refuse to complete their milk reports, which detail how much their farms are making and how many cows they are milking because they fear the government will use that information against them.
Mr. Herse calls the financing system for farmers “criminal.”
“If you want to stay in farming as a little guy, you can’t. It’s all selective financing,” he said.
But the facts indicate that small farms are not left out of the financial assistance process.
Farm Credit is a loan system across America, with 73 independent institutions that “support rural communities and agriculture with reliable, consistent credit and financial services.” In their mission statement, it says, “We serve every part of agriculture from the smallest operations to the largest — and everything in between.”
Tom Cosgrove is a senior vice president at Farm Credit East. He defends Farm Credit, saying, “We’re not a part of the government, we’re a cooperative with an elected board of directors, one of which is a local farmer from Adams.”
“We finance farms of all sizes, it’s something we measure. Last year we had around 8,000 loans specifically to small farmers,” he said.
The annual report shows that since December of 2017, Farm Credit East has already had over 40 percent of all loans go to small farms.
Kimberly M. Morrill is the regional dairy specialist at the St. Lawrence County Cooperative Extension. With her experience, she understands why some farmers may be frustrated with the government.
“The big picture here is, everyone in the dairy industry, big or small, is under financial pressure, and has been for three years. And when things get stressful, people look for someone to blame,” she said.
Mr. Grimshaw said he believes large farms are partially to blame, because they are selected for grants if they are the kind of farm the government includes in their choice of production.
“Big farms are receiving grants when we don’t even have enough money to pay bills,” Mr. Grimshaw said. “I overheard a CEO saying, ‘Just wait until the small guys are done and gone, soon enough,” They just want to get their choice in production.”
However, Mrs. Morrill disagrees.
“Grants are specifically available to small farms through a cost-share program, and this is because the dairy industry needs farms of all sizes, and there is a place in the industry for small farms, medium farms and large farms alike,” she said.
GRANTS NO SOLUTION
Mr. Farney milks about 250 cows, considers himself to be a small farm, and was a recipient of such a government grant to improve his farm environmentally.
“We got a grant for this farm. It was a cost-share grant because the cows used to come outside to an inside feed bunk, and the rainwater would hit it and hit their manure on the other side,” he said. “We want to be environmentally compliant, and don’t want to have any runoff, so we actually got a grant for part of the roof of this barn to have everything inside where the rainwater won’t hit it.”
His farm was also approved for another cost-share grant for a bigger manure storage.
“I think all farmers will tell you they don’t want to run the business off subsidies from taxpayers,” Mr. Farney said. “If we could find a way that the business could run and be environmentally sound and humane with the profit we’re getting from milk instead of tax subsidies, we would.”
Mr. Tabolt said farmers have a difficult relationship with the government.
“Farmers have a tendency to like the government to stay out of things. Farmers aren’t looking for a handout. They’re looking for some sort of legislation that would maybe cause stability,” he said. “So far, no politician has come up with that, or even talked about it.”
The 2018 Farm Bill didn’t have much to say in the way of farmers, Mr. Stine said.
“My personal feelings with the Farm Bill is it shouldn’t be called that at this point. We have SNAP in there, now there’s talk about iron, mining and things like that, so why is this the Farm Bill?,” Mr. Stine said. “The overwhelming amount of funding going into a Farm Bill is set aside for these different programs that are outside of what I view as farming; I don’t think it justifies what it was meant to do.”
“It’s absolutely useless,” Mr. Peck, a Jefferson County legislator, said. “It’s the same repackaged broken MPP (Margin Protection Program) with a brand new name on it. It’s a typical politician sleight-of-hand move and there’s virtually no changes.”
Change is what farmers so desperately need in this broken milk market with a rising contributing factor: Boycotting of dairy products in America.
“Some of our biggest challenges as farmers don’t come from traditional things,” Mr. Peck said. “Weather is not the thing that worries me the most anymore … it’s the external human factors — the interest group factors, the humane society, the Sierra Club, other environmental groups and just consumer groups. They’re being sold into an idea that our natural resources are being exhausted and animal agriculture is inefficient.”
In addition, the word milk is now being applied to a plethora of nondairy products.
“We’re losing ground now to the plant based, soy milk, coconut, almond, honey milk … let’s not call that stuff milk, but either way we’re losing market share there,” Mr. Stine said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just concluded a study on this, and new regulations that will ban the use of the word “milk” in nondairy products could soon be issued.
Furthermore, the change from whole milk to skim in schools has given the dairy industry a blow as well.
“Now we’re basically giving the consumer water,” Mrs. Parish said.
“Skim milk doesn’t taste nearly as good as whole milk, so kids are learning a new habit of ‘I don’t like milk,’” Mr. Tabolt said. “We are losing a whole generation of milk drinkers, and this problem will continue to get worse until we find a way to get our kids back drinking a good, healthy product.
“That’s the sad part for me, is boycotting the dairy industry. The milk price lowers, cows are worth less and less, it doesn’t pay to keep them around, which is unfortunate,” Mr. Farney said. “I feel like a lot of people that cold-turkey quit dairy maybe are not uneducated, but rather don’t know the ins and outs of our everyday life and why we do things. “
Misconceptions about dairy cow welfare are not uncommon, and are contributing to the dairy boycott.
“You hear a lot about PETA groups, and people have been taking it out on the farmer, saying he’s not taking care of his cows the way he’s supposed to, or that it’s inhumane,” Mr. Tabolt said. “But farmers know that the more comfortable a cow is, the better she produces. There’s no misuse to the way our cows are being treated. Most people are really proud of them and will show you every new calf when you visit their farm.”
So with so many factors and misconceptions contributing to the dairy dilemma, what can be done to reverse the damage?
“Call out Congress people,” Mrs. Parish said. “We’re in crisis mode. They’re not doing right by farmers, we need all the help we can get. I’m going to call out Patty Ritchie and you need to call out Governor Cuomo.”
“To save farmers we need an emergency floor price not sponsored by the government. And although we can’t stop the big corporate guys from expanding their farms, we can decrease the worth of their milk so we level the playing field,” Mr. Grimshaw said.
The Agri-Mark Co-op has sought this kind of help from the government earlier this summer by sending a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking for implementation of minimum wholesale prices for butter, cheese and nonfat dry milk. The letter also called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase those products for government programs, like school lunches, at these requested wholesale price floors: $2.30 per pound of butter, $1.64 per pound on cheddar cheese, and minimum 81 cents per pound of dry milk. According to Agri-Mark economist Robert D. Wellington, these floor prices would prevent the milk prices from worsening for farmers, while also encouraging private consumers to raise their offers to beat out the government for goods.
“A system, any system, that can control at least some of our overproduction, would be really good, along with more processing plants in New York,” Mr. Tabolt said.
As for locally? The response across the board was to simply consume more dairy products to help farmers.
“Get extra cheese on the pizza at Pizza Hut, drink an extra half gallon of milk a week, anything consumers can do to take advantage of and consume what we’re producing would certainly be appreciated,” Mr. Stine said.
Other farmers agreed.
“Eat! Just eat. Enjoy. Tell your friends and neighbors, ‘Hey, let’s go and eat ice cream.’ It’s about consumption,” Mr. Peck said. “Be proud of what’s produced locally, but don’t take it for granted because things are changing and you may not have that local farm down the road forever.”
And Mr. Peck is right. With the unsteady milk market, overwhelming debt, loans or no loans, grants or no grants, and a nationwide dairy boycott on the trend, farmers are finding that the lifestyle they love and dedicate themselves to is becoming unbearable and unattainable.
“Nothing can prepare you for how challenging farming can be at times,” Mr. Farney said.
“I don’t know if anybody could just walk up and say, ‘I want to be a farmer’ and make a go of it. I just don’t know how you could. And that is something we all need to reflect on,” Mr. Stine said.
Tune in to WPBS tonight at 6:30 or next Saturday at 6:30 for the More to the Story episode highlighting these farmers and reflecting upon these issues. The link where people can watch online is https://www.pbs.org/video/small-farms-tz7wtg/.