America’s Dairy Farmers Are Struggling And Unsupported

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Above Photo: Cows grazing in Northampton County, Penn.   (Image: Nicholas A. Toneli / Flickr / Creative Commons)

When Lorraine Lewandrowski drives from her Herkimer County dairy farm to her law office each day, she notices the changes happening across rural upstate New York. “When I grew up here, we had 30 or 40 farms in our neighborhood,” she says. “We had a local hardware store, machinery dealers, two dentists, two doctors. We had a vibrant rural town. Now we don’t have that.”

Today, she says, roadsides are dotted with “for sale” signs. Farms sit vacant, their owners having relocated to urban areas in search of work. Once-pristine barns have become dilapidated after years of low prices left farmers without money for infrastructure upkeep. The closest city, Utica, is the sixth-most distressed city in the country, with about half of the adults unemployed and more than a quarter of the population living in poverty.

Depressed farm prices are impacting farmers across industries nationwide. Since 2013, farm income has fallen by more than 50 percent, and median farm income for 2018 is projected to be negative (-$1,316, to be exact). But dairy farmers are arguably being hit the hardest, as they face a fourth year of milk prices that are well below the cost of production. The resulting stress has become so pronounced that the Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative, which manages milk sales for its member farms, sent farmers suicide hotline numbers along with their milk checks earlier this year.

Today, it costs a farmer approximately $22 to produce a hundredweight, or one hundred pounds, of milk. But the market price for milk is significantly less. While the price of milk constantly fluctuates, farmers are currently paid as low as $15 per hundredweight—30 percent less than the cost of production.

Farmers and organizations are calling on legislators in both the House and the Senate to draft Farm Bill legislation that addresses the current farm crisis. While the U.S. Senate Farm Bill is expected to be introduced as soon as this week, the House version will be brought back to the floor for a second time on June 22, after 30 Republicans joined all 183 Democrats in defeating the bill in May. In a National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) press release that applauded the defeat of the House Bill, board president and fourth generation dairy farmer Jim Goodman said, “This bill missed a key opportunity to fix the ongoing crisis in the dairy sector and the downturn in the farm economy. With the bill’s defeat, Congress can now go back to work to draft a true bipartisan farm bill—one that is supportive of family farmers, rural communities, SNAP recipients, and the environment.”

The release builds on an April letter that the NFFC—along with 50 other organizations—sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Congressional leadership of agriculture committees, demanding that attention be paid to the dairy crisis before more farms are lost. “Small, family-run dairy farms play a vital role in the rural economy while providing a safe, affordable food to consumers. If the current cycle of low prices and contracted dairy markets continues, we will see virtually all of these farms go out of business, with serious impacts on the economic and social health of rural America,” they wrote.

The groups proposed setting an immediate floor price of $20 per hundred pounds of milk, an emergency measure that would rescue dairy farmers on the brink of losing their operations. The groups also proposed a shift in dairy policy to ensure a balance between supply and demand, known as “supply management.”

Supply management policies were first implemented after the Great Depression to stabilize the market. The supply of agricultural products was coordinated, and strategic reserves of commodities were stored to supplement American food supply during times of poor yields. If supply began to overburden reserves, farmers were paid by the federal government to take land out of production to avoid flooding the market.

But in the 1970s, agriculture made a swift about-face. Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture during the Nixon Administration, famously took the approach of “get big or get out.” He encouraged farmers to produce as much as they could and dangled the promise of foreign exports for any overages. The new era encouraged farmers to take out loans to lease more land and buy equipment built for larger scale operations. But increased production led to a dip in prices at the same time that the U.S. enacted a grain embargo against the Soviet Union. The dominos began to fall—market prices crashed, interest rates skyrocketed, loans were called in. By the mid-1980s, the Farm Crisis—the biggest farm crash since the Great Depression—was in full swing. As a result, tens of thousands of farms were lost, and many rural communities experienced a forced exodus of its residents.

Some worry that today’s agricultural recession too closely echoes the lead-up to the 1980s Farm Crisis: oversupply and falling crop prices, rising interest rates, family farms rapidly going out of business, and now a looming trade war that could impact over 90 agricultural exports. And as dairy farmers face a crisis that has reached emergency levels, the idea of supply management is being resurrected, appearing on the lips of farmers and experts as an approach worth discussing. It’s not without controversy, of course. Those opposed to it say the policy allows government to unnecessarily interfere in private marketplaces. But supporters say it would steady the volatile dairy market by keeping milk production in relative balance with demand.

NFFC’s Goodman says, “Supply management is a long term fix. If we really wanted to look forward and say, ‘We don’t want this crisis to happen again… what steps can we take to prevent it?’, then supply management would be one of those.”

Many supporters of supply management point to the success of Canada’s dairy program, in which farms own shares in the market and are required to increase or decrease production according to demand. The group Dairy Farmers of Canada maintains that the system provides farmers “a predictable and stable revenue.” In an email, Lewandrowski wrote, “The Canadians seem to be doing very well for the rural economies with their [supply management] program. Drive around Ontario and you see pretty well maintained farms with new equipment. Drive over the border into rural NY, and you see miles of empty farms, barns falling down, and people struggling to live.”

Mike Eby, Board Chairman of the National Dairy Producers Organization and a former 7th generation dairy farmer from Pennsylvania, says it’s necessary to control the amount of milk in the marketplace, but doesn’t believe it should or will come through government intervention. Instead, Eby thinks the solution lives within dairy cooperatives, which currently represent 80 percent of U.S. produced milk, primarily through memberships with farmers.

Eby says, “Either farmers control the amount of milk they produce, or the excess will control the number of farmers that produce it… We look to the farmer and say you need to own this problem as well, because if you can’t own the problem, you can’t own the solution. In order to own the solution, your only hope in doing so is to utilize the cooperative you already own.” Eby and his colleagues say the cooperatives “are in the perfect position to monitor the marketplace and ask their members to respond accordingly” by producing more or less milk based on demand.

While small and mid-sized dairies are going out of business, the number of bigger farms—including those termed mega-farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—are growing across industries ranging from hogs to grain, tree nuts, vegetables, eggs, and dairy. And modern agricultural policy is shifting to favor these large producers by favoring anti-regulatory policies and awarding the majority of farm subsidies to the biggest and most lucrative operations. Goodman maintains that Wisconsin’s dairy farmers “have been duped into producing too much milk” through expansion grant programs, laws favoring large dairies, and a commitment by Governor Walker to grow the state’s annual milk production to 30 billion pounds by 2020.

Additionally, as processors get bigger, farms must grow to match the higher demand, or leave the business altogether—a pressure amplified last March, when Wal-Mart announced the construction of their own dairy plant. The announcement resulted in the second-largest dairy company, Dean Foods, abruptly severing contracts with more than 100 dairy farms in eight states. Farmers fear that Wal-Mart’s model will gradually expand across the country, edging small producers out almost entirely.

In January, the USDA reported that the number of licensed dairy farms dropped to 40,000. This represents a 3 percent decline in a single year, and a loss of 17,000 dairy farms—30 percent—over the last decade. But while the number of farms decreased, the number of milk cows and milk production increased. This discrepancy represents the consolidation of the market, a restructuring that has changed the face of agriculture over the last three decades. In a new report, the USDA found that “by 2015, 51 percent of the value of U.S. farm production came from farms with at least $1 million in sales, compared to 31 percent in 1991.”

Goodman says the dairy crisis is hitting the smaller farmers much harder, as larger producers can often afford to weather periods of low prices. “Even if they’re getting paid less per hundred pounds of milk, they can just produce more milk to make up the difference,” he says. “And they’re relying almost entirely on immigrant labor, so they know they can pay a lower wage, which also feeds into things.”

In an interview with Heritage Radio Network, Lewandrowski said, “I would like to ask the processors: How do they ensure sustainability for their farmers who supply them? Most of the processors pay rock bottom prices, and some of them have the farmers bidding down each other. It’s kind of like Hunger Games for farmers.”

Lewandrowski and her sister, who together operate a 60-cow dairy, use the income from their off-farm jobs to supplement their farm income. Lewandrowski works by day as an attorney, and her sister is a large-animal veterinarian. “I’m lucky I have another way to make money,” she tells me. All around her, neighboring farmers are facing increased stress and tough decisions driven by a market with no rebound in sight. “Just about everyone I know has an off-farm job, or is taking on more debt.”

In her work as an attorney, Lewandrowski is “inundated with farmers.” They need help navigating logging or hunting contracts to make extra money, or selling a piece of land, or getting released from their mortgages. She helps with divorces and estate plans. “I just had one farm liquidate their whole herd,” she says, the surest sign that dairy farmers are facing desperate times.

Frustrated by the lack of support for farmers, Lewandrowski has become a vocal presence on social media. She uses it to amplify the realities facing rural communities and, specifically, the stress being felt among dairy farmers. In April, she tweeted to her 25,000 followers:

“Went to Walmart late at night. Kid at cash register told me he’s a dairy farmer, works the night shift to make $.”

“I hang onto happier days ahead. A farmer neighbor collapsed from stress today. We all went over to do the chores.”

“Feeling very bitter today as every last farmer in my area struggles for their life.”

  • Nylene13

    Small self sufficient family farms, small family cow or goat.
    A woman driving on her way to work at a Law Firm laments the lack of dairy farms.
    Capitalism is the problem. What is the question?

  • Thom Rip

    Obviously we all share the compassion for the economic disaster being suffered by the small (and large) dairy farmer. Do know tho that in the larger health picture, wheat, sugar..and dairy, have become the 3 most inflammatory unhealthy foods…thus the market is changing…shrinking, as well. The solution..obvious… as is necessary in so many of our older, dangerous, and inefficient industries…. Govt. subsidies need to be provided so there’s a painless switch to more current useful foods…products, utilities etc.

  • Robert H. Stiver

    I like your comment, Thom; however (I’m trying to be a bit humorous here, but what I write is true): I have a lifelong insatiable sugar habit (hypoglycemia), and my drink of choice is not beer, or wine, or skim milk, or water — it is half-and-half “creamer,” of which I’ve drunk about one gallon per week for at least 10 years. At almost 75, I’m too old to change habits, and good tastes…. (I was raised in upstate New York, where the dairy cattle in my county out-numbered the human population. I wonder what it looks like today….)

  • Thom Rip

    And thank you for your sharing your situation. As you may know as resistant to routine change as you may be, there are several creamer alternatives available today and they’re good…soy, coconut, almond based, and flavored if you like. I travel upstate NY once/year, southern tier, it’s as the article describes but not as bad…in my view.

  • Nylene13

    The “Experts” are now saying that whole milk is better for us than low fat milk.
    Just wait awhile, cream will be back in health fashion someday too.

    I think what is unhealthy for humans is meat, not dairy.
    But then what to do with the extra males?

    Have you tried goats milk and goats milk cheese?
    Wonderful taste-and here the Nevada the extra males make great pet weed eaters.

  • Jon

    I’ve switched to almond milk, but still love my organic ice cream. On happier note, the average age of farmers in Maine is actually dropping. Also there is a great program called Maine Farmland Trust that works to ensure land is availTble for farming well into the future. There is also a national organization, American Farmland trust, headed up by John Piotti who used to be head of the Maine branch.

  • Robert H. Stiver

    Great comment!

    I agree w/meat vs. dairy. I rarely eat red meat these days; mostly fish, chicken (tofu is good!)–and that invariably restaurant fare.

    Yes, I like goat milk, although I purchase it only on a whim; simply don’t buy goat cheese (I’m a 2-year widower, and I imagine any sentient human being would term my diet atrocious and life-threatening…so be it). One favorite memory is of a visit to a friend’s farm for a weekend when we were 10ish. The dad milked the family goat and chuckled mightily the first morning as he squirted our faces with (body hot) milk straight from the teat.

  • kevinzeese

    While there are health problems with meat, there are also health problems with dairy. This is well documented in medical research. See

  • Nylene13

    What milk, from what cow or goat, fed what, treated how, raised where?
    You could argue the same thing of apples or spinach.

    A well loved free range family milk goat hardly gives the same milk as a commercial industrial dairy cow.

    Yes, fruits and veggies are what we should focus our diets on.
    But eating too much spinach can give you diarrhea.

    This hardly puts spinach on the same risk level as eating meat.

  • Nylene13

    I had the same experience when I was 8, with a farmers dairy cow.

    This farmer had a commercial farm, but he raised the family animals separately.

    The eggs his family ate were from free range chickens, a small family flock, not the warehouse of caged commercial chickens he also raised.

    He eventually quit farming, said you could not make a living anymore by farming the way people should.

  • kevinzeese

    No doubt organic, properly fed is better but dairy still has health problems. I’m not vegan bit have cut wayback on eating dairy. There are lots of nondairy alternatives to meat and some excellent nut cheeses that are more healthy.

  • Nylene13

    You say you are not vegan but have cut “way-back” on eating dairy. If you are not eating meat or dairy, does that not make you a vegan?

    My main issue with vegans is that much of the food they eat are not foods can can be naturally grown and eaten but are commercially mass produced. To be dependent on commercial industrial foods is not a good thing for our culture.

    What alternatives to meat are you talking about? Do you make your own nut cheese?

  • zonmoy

    pretty sure that to be vegan one has to do more than cut back on eating animal products. eating none is actually required.

  • Robert H. Stiver

    Your last paragraph is soooo dispiriting….

    Seguing a bit, I could go on and on about my family’s five massive sugar-maple trees (1950s era). Dad would drive a spile into each tree in the spring, hang a bucket on it, and I would be responsible for taking the bucket off the spile periodically and delivering it to Mom for her coal-fired-stove-top conversion from sap to syrup. Simple, satisfying work with benefits galore all through the year. Then, a few years ago, I was sent photos of a “maple sugar farm/factory” in the same vicinity. I was aghast, and nearly nauseated, at the sight of plastic tubing snaking here, there and everywhere as the trees’ bounty was harvested in such an assembly-line, impersonal manner. Effective, no doubt, but hardly fulfilling in any sort of Mother Nature/spiritual/joyful way….

  • Robert H. Stiver

    Wow. That site’s text — from my scan of it — is unreservedly grim!

    (I looked for, but couldn’t find, a date of the report. Not sure that’s all that important…I did find a few footnotes with dates of 2012-2013….)

  • Nylene13

    And as that is the trees blood, not much good for the tree either.
    A tree won’t miss a little sap, but nothing is done for the good of the trees anymore, either.

    Look at the way they commercially prune apple trees. Poor tiny shriveled up trees. Everything for more apples, nothing for the good of the trees.
    As I say-Capitalism is the problem. What is the question?

  • kevinzeese

    Read the research on health impacts of dairy. The negative health cosequences are well documented. I provided one link in an earlier comment.

    I am not vegan or vegetarian, even though it would be healthier if I was. No I do not make my own nut cheese. Organic forms are available.

    I agree processed foods are a health problem. I avoid them. The US food system has many problems which is why obesity, heart disease, diabetes and hypertension are so common, and one reason why healthcare is so expensive, 18% of GDP.

    My diet is primarily vegetables, greens, nuts oats and fruits. One good source on diet ie “Eat to Live”

  • Nylene13

    That study you linked is exactly what I was talking about -when I stated -what apple, grown where? I did not read anywhere in that link that stated any difference between small farm organic dairy and large commercial dairy. It seemed to be assuming all diary is commercial.

    I agree Dr. Furman’s books are good.
    For non -dairy veganism -I would recommend Mimi Kirk’s cookbooks.
    Her food is raw and homemade.

    She is online and on you-tube.

  • Nylene13

    As I stated in a comment above, that site made no difference between commercial and organic small farms in those studies.

    Which I think is the most important issue of all when discussing healthy foods and health statistics.