Four years of low milk prices are taking their toll with no end in sight for local dairy farmers

Cheaper milk on grocery store shelves is bad news for dairy farmers. It’s the fourth year of falling milk prices, and the crisis is hitting farm families hard.

“There have been farms that have gone out of business,” said Elizabeth Wolters of the New York Farm Bureau. “Farms have had to take out additional lines of credit. Some farms have had to have sales of livestock and/or equipment. So it is really challenging.”

In February, lead dairy co-op Agri-Mark included suicide prevention literature with payment checks following the suicide of one of the dairy farmers in its network. “I think it’s really important information for all farmers to have, especially in these down times,” Wolters said.

Skip Jensen, state Farm Bureau field adviser for the Finger Lakes region, said when he sold his cows in 1997, he got about the same price dairy farmers are getting now for their milk. Farmers are losing money and it’s “a really, really scary scene,” Jensen said.

“The impact here is pretty simple,” said dairy farmer Hal Adams of Black Brook Farm in Farmington. “Our net income right now is zero.” 

Dairy farmer Adams and his wife Kerri have run Black Brook Farm since the 1980s. They consider themselves among the luckier dairy farmers. Right now, a good month at Black Brook means that the Adamses pay the bills without borrowing money. They’ve had to work longer hours to make that work. But for many farmers, the reality is much bleaker.

“We can continue to operate,” Hal Adams said. “Farms with a lot of debt may not have that opportunity, so their stress is going to be much higher.”

Hal said the downturns seem to have gotten longer. He hopes he, and fellow dairy farmers, have seen the worse already.

“There’s stress for everyone,” he said. “Honestly, when I go to farm meetings, a lot of my colleagues don’t want to talk about it.”

Jensen said many farmers are having to borrow more money and it’s a concern for both farmers and lenders.

Market-driven

The price farmers get for their milk is out of their control because it’s driven by the market.

“We live in a world market,” said Jensen. What the dairy industry does in other countries affects what happens for farmers in New York, he said.

“Hands down, the thing that would help the most would be to not get in a trade war with the rest of the world,” Hal Adams said. He said that 20 percent of U.S. milk is exported.

Jensen said American Farm Bureau is advocating in Washington for continuation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“NAFTA has been great for agriculture,” he said. “We wish we could continue to have free trade and fair trade. We are all in this world together, so it doesn’t make sense not to do that.”

Farm Bureau policy supports the U.S. government acting to protect U.S. agricultural interests in NAFTA. “Any renegotiation must protect the gains achieved in agricultural trade and work to remove remaining barriers to trade with Canada and Mexico,” according to American Farm Bureau.

President Donald Trump has threatened to quit NAFTA, the world's largest free trade agreement, but with mid-term elections fast approaching that could change. Business groups and many lawmakers want the U.S. to stay in the pact.

Help for farmers 

“We have to do something to help our dairy farmers,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York’s senior senator. Schumer said the federal farm bill due this year will be a chance to allocate funds and improve safety nets for milk producers.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said New York dairy farmers pump out more than $2.51 billion worth of milk annually from more than 4,400 dairy farms statewide. Gillibrand recently announced new legislation that would help New York’s dairy farmers continue operating while milk prices are historically low. The Dairy Farm Sustainability Act would be a provision in the new five-year Farm Bill being drafted in the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. It would guarantee a minimum price for dairy farmers, “to ensure that our farmers don’t go bankrupt every time prices drop,” stated Gillibrand.

“Historically low milk prices are creating a crisis for our farmers and dairy communities, and Congress needs to fix this problem now,” she said.

Targeting tariffs

Our ongoing coverage will explore the effect tariffs will have on local industries. How might you be impacted? We would like to hear from you. Contact Messenger Post Senior Reporter Julie Sherwood at jsherwood@messengerpostmedia.com, 585-337-4263 or on Twitter @MPN_JSherwood.