Excellent article on the state of the dairy industry

hawkeye

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I milked my last time on Tuesday, after 30+ years it was time to call it a career. Over the last several years I have been slowly converting over to running more beef cows so that will be my focus going forward. Instead of the iconic picture of contented cows chewing their cud in a lush pasture, more and more will come from the industrial farms or what I like to refer to cow concentration camps. Story closely resembles my experience.


Dairy farming is dying. After 40 years, I’m done.
The Washington Post
by Jim Goodman

After 40 years of dairy farming, I sold my herd of cows. The herd had been in my family since 1904; I know all 45 cows by name. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over our farm — who would? Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide.

A grass-based organic dairy farm bought my cows. I couldn’t watch them go. In June, I milked them for the last time, left the barn and let the truckers load them. A cop-out on my part? Perhaps, but being able to remember them as I last saw them, in my barn, chewing their cuds and waiting for pasture, is all I have left.

My retirement was mostly voluntary. Premature, but there is some solace in having a choice. Unlike many dairy farmers, I didn’t retire bankrupt. But for my wife and me, having to sell our herd was a sign — of the economic death not just of rural America but also of a way of life. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to walk through our barn and know that those stalls will remain empty; knowing that our losses reflect the greater damage inflicted on entire regions is worse.

When I started farming in 1979, the milk from 45 cows could pay the bills, cover new machinery and buildings, and allow us to live a decent life and start a family. My father had farmed through the Great Depression, and his advice — “don’t borrow any more than you have to” — stuck with me and probably saved the farm many times over.

We survived the 1980s, when debt loads became impossible for many farmers and merely incredibly onerous for the lucky ones. Interest rates went up , export markets plummetedafter a wheat embargo against the Soviet Union, oil prices soared, inflation skyrocketed, and land prices began to collapse. More than 250,000 farms died that decade, and more than 900 farmers committed suicide in the upper Midwest alone.

Farms felt the impact most directly, but there were few in rural communities who were untouched. All the businesses that depended on farm dollars watched as their incomes dried up and the tax base shrank. Farm foreclosures meant fewer families and fewer kids, so schools were forced to close . The Main Street cafes and coffee shops — where farmers talked prices, the weather and politics — shut down as well.

As devastating as the 1980s were for farmers, today’s crisis is worse. Ineffective government subsidies and insurance programs are worthless in the face of plummeting prices and oversupply (and tariffs certainly aren’t helping). The current glut of organic milk has caused a 30 percent decrease in the price I was paid for my milk over the past two years. The new farm bill, signed by President Trump on Thursday, provides modest relief for larger dairy farmers (it expands some subsidies, and farmers will be able to pay lower premiums to participate in a federal program that offers compensation when milk prices drop below a certain level), but farmers don’t want subsidies; all we ever asked for were fair prices. So for many, this is little more than another PR stunt, and the loss of family farms will continue. This year, Wisconsin, where I live, had lost 382 dairy farms by August; last year, the number at the same point was 283. The despair is palpable; suicide is a fact of life, though many farm suicides are listed as accidents.

A farmer I knew for many years came home from town, folded his good clothes for the last time and killed himself. I saw no warning, though maybe others did.

When family farms go under, the people leave and the buildings are often abandoned, but the land remains, often sold to the nearest land baron. Hillsides and meadows that were once grasslands for pasturing cattle become acre upon acre of corn-soybean agriculture. Farming becomes a business where it used to be a way of life. With acreages so large, owners use pesticides and chemical fertilizers to ensure that the soil can hold an unsustainable rotation of plants upright, rather than caring for the soil as a living biotic community.

Those dairy farms that remain milk hundreds or thousands of cows, keeping them in huge barns and on concrete lots. The animals seldom, if ever, get the chance to set their feet on what little grass is there. Pigs are raised indoors for their entire lives, never feeling the sun or rain or what it’s like to roll in mud.

All the machinery has become bigger, noisier, and some days it runs around the clock. Manure from the mega-farms is hauled for miles in huge tanker trucks or pumped through irrigation lines onto crop fields. The smell, the flies and the airborne pathogens that go with it have effectively done away with much of the peaceful countryside I used to know.

What kind of determination does it take for someone young and hopeful to begin a life of farming in times like these? Getting credit as a small farmer is more difficult today. As prices continue to fall, increasing production and farm size is often the only way to survive. But there is just too much — too much milk, too much grain, too much livestock — thanks to tightening export markets and declining domestic demand for dairy products. The situation is great for the processors who buy from the farmers, but it will never give the farmers a fair price.

With fewer farms, there are fewer foreclosures than in the 1980s. But watching your neighbor’s farm and possessions being auctioned off is no more pleasant today than it was 30 years ago. Seeing a farm family look on as their life’s work is sold off piece by piece; the cattle run through a corral, parading for the highest bid; tools, household goods and toys piled as “boxes of junk” and sold for a few dollars while the kids hide in the haymow crying — auctions are still too painful for me.

As I end my career as a farmer, I feel fortunate it lasted as long as it did. Some choices made long ago did keep me ahead of the curve, at least for a while. I always told people that 45 cows were enough for me, and being able to give them names rather than numbers and appreciate each one’s unique nature was important. I remember Adel, who always found her way across the pasture for a good head scratch, and Lara, whose sandpaper tongue always found my face as I milked her.

Cows like these didn’t fit into the “get big or get out ” theory of farming that took over during the 1980s, so over the years, we needed to get better ideas or get out. By switching to organic production and direct marketing, we managed to make a decent living. We also found that this method of farming required good environmental stewardship and direct involvement with our rural community. And, for almost 20 years, it worked.

But organic dairying has become a victim of its own success. It was profitable and thus fell victim to the “get big” model. Now, our business is dominated by large organic operations that are more factory than farm. It seems obvious that they simply cannot be following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strict organic production standards (like pasturing cattle), rules that we smaller farmers see as common sense.

Although small organic farms pioneered the concept, organic certification has become something not meant for us — and a label that mega-farms co-opted and used to break us. When six dairy farms in Texas feed their thousands of cows a diet of organic grain and stored forage, with no discernible access to a blade of grass, they end up producing more milk than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. Then they ship it north, undercutting our price. We can’t make ends meet and are forced out of the business. We played by the rules, but we no longer have a level playing field.

Despite this, I hung on, but I couldn’t continue milking cows indefinitely. Perhaps it’s for the best. A few years before we sold our herd, we had to install huge fans in our barn — the summers were getting too hot for the cows to be out during the heat of the day. Climate change would have made our future in farming that much harder. We could have adapted, I think, but we ran out of time.

They say a farmer gets 40 chances. For 40 years, each spring brings another shot at getting it right, at succeeding or failing or something in between. If that were ever true, it isn’t now. That’s why, after my 40 chances, I’m done.
 

PurpleBeeper

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Touching story. I doubt that "small family farms" will ever make a comeback, unless maybe urban farming (vacant lots & rooftops in cities).

We live in a free-market economy which means that some people get really, really rich & others get really, really poor & lose their farms. If we changed that, it would be socialism.

Industries change & Americans have to change with them. Once telephones were operated by turning a crank (those companies are long gone)….then attached to the wall with a wire & you just dialed it (those companies are 99% gone)….and now just about everyone uses cell phones only. Times change.

What bothered me about the story is that a "big corporate farm" could sell its products as "organic"....that seems like cheating.
 

69a100

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Do your own Victory Farming and live longer through better & healthier living without Monsanto, DuPont, or Dow getting you contaminated with their shit!!
 

burntorng70

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I grew up working on the many local dairy farms, none of which milk cows today..
 

Chargered

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Really hate to see the small family farms go. I grew up on a 275 acre farm in Iowa, surrounded by other small family farms in the 70s and 80s. Most of the old neighbors have died off and now its all farmed by these guys renting out thousands of acres operating on razor thin margins. I miss the neighborly family farm atmosphere and the friendliness of the small towns.
 

moparedtn

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At 57 years of age, I know one thing - food does not taste like it used to. including milk.
I buy a small local brands' organic whole milk because it tastes closest to what milk was when I was young.
I'm still experimenting on other foods to buy, but it's obvious it would be unaffordable to buy everything
in organic form.
 

cr8crshr

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Touching story. I doubt that "small family farms" will ever make a comeback, unless maybe urban farming (vacant lots & rooftops in cities).

We live in a free-market economy which means that some people get really, really rich & others get really, really poor & lose their farms. If we changed that, it would be socialism.

Industries change & Americans have to change with them. Once telephones were operated by turning a crank (those companies are long gone)….then attached to the wall with a wire & you just dialed it (those companies are 99% gone)….and now just about everyone uses cell phones only. Times change.

What bothered me about the story is that a "big corporate farm" could sell its products as "organic"....that seems like cheating.

I hear ya. And if I just can add this...There isn't such a thing as "ORGANIC" in thre sense of it. Yes no pesticides, and hormone chemicals and such but it is still grown out of the "Organic" ground. They bi growers use that term now so over the top, that people buy into that notion and spend the extra premium for that "Organic" item. I have been a prolific back yard Farmer growing vegetables and some fruit. Can't have any Chickens or say Rabbits to supplement my table but for the most part what I get from my small Victory Garden Farm in the back yard gives me plenty of produce to freeze and can. I get a kick out of doing it and it does gives me some sense of peace and solace when I am out tending them. Most it seems haven't a clue about doing it...not sayin' anyone here doesn't...about a DIY method of obtaining their food. They think that the big cooperation's and large retail stores are where all food comes from. If they only knew what a little good earth loam, some seeds, H2O and the natural Sun what they could get, I bet they would see things in a much different light...cr8crshr/Tuck:thumbsup::thumbsup::thumbsup::usflag::usflag::usflag:
 

PP1RT

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Be thankful you had the chance to dairy all these years. I would have loved to milk about 50 cows and have a dozen sows to farrow and sell feeders. My family does not farm but my in laws do. I made a couple attempts into dairy but just didnt hit the market swings right to be able to get up and running. Fast forward 25 years and the stars aligned a little better and i am growing into the beef and row crop side. It is all on my dime(and some help from the bank) with no family money or equipment to help out. Still working 50hrs a week in town and a couple other side gigs to help out. Yes the margins are thin and still amounts to legalized gambling but we are making a go of it. I dont know what the future holds but am enjoying it while it lasts.

Just a side note to those in the big city. We dont just dump gobs of fertilizer on our crops. We cant afford to waste money like that. Lawns and golf courses use many many times the fertilizer per acre than we can afford. We do not just pour the chemicals to our crops. Simple economics do not allow it. We use the bare minimum to eliminate most but not all pests(weeds,insects,fungus,etc). These products are highly scrutinized and regulations are strictly enforced. We do not pour the antibiotics to our animals. We only use them when there is an injury or illness no different than you would for a family member. We cant afford to waste money like that.
Yes there have been and will be those that abuse the above. The media will take those stories and try to paint a broad picture of the ag industry as a whole. They are simply not how it works all over. Consider the source...
 

69a100

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We do not pour the antibiotics to our animals. We only use them when there is an injury or illness no different than you would for a family member. We cant afford to waste money like that.
Yes there have been and will be those that abuse the above. The media will take those stories and try to paint a broad picture of the ag industry as a whole. They are simply not how it works all over. Consider the source...
You may live by that rule, but I don't believe it one bit! I have a hard time trusting anything in a grocery store and the shit it's been loaded with!
 

PP1RT

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You may live by that rule, but I don't believe it one bit! I have a hard time trusting anything in a grocery store and the shit it's been loaded with!
Sounds like you drank the koolaid already. Nothing wrong with that. Believe what you like. It is America. I raise a garden and fill the freezer with home raised meat also. Maybe you need to point your finger at the processor or retailer. Razor thin margins do not allow any unnecessary spending.
 

69a100

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Sounds like you drank the koolaid already. Nothing wrong with that. Believe what you like. It is America. I raise a garden and fill the freezer with home raised meat also. Maybe you need to point your finger at the processor or retailer. Razor thin margins do not allow any unnecessary spending.
And you probably believe that the flu shot is safe too?
 

Lets Roll

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I remember doing some retrofit jobs at a milk plant in early 2000's. A manager I was talking to was saying "when milk can be shipped from China and stay fresh long enough we will be out of business". Its sad that is where it will most likely end up.
 

gkent

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Your farmers and politicians whined and complained during the recent NAFTA negotiations about Canada's dairy subsidies and import restrictions. Sure, we can't buy milk for 99 cents a gallon but our dairy farms aren't the one's going under. The biggest problem is the U.S.'s overproduction and the lack of any control. Overproduction means farmers end up selling their product at rock bottom prices, barely scrape out a living and usually end up tossing in the towel to large conglomerates. And now they want access to our market !! The solution is not a larger market but lower production and higher prices. The U.S. dairy industry needs a marketing board to oversee heard size, production and pricing. Sure, consumer cost will increase but the choice is simple, pay more for US milk or have all the farms shut down and get your milk from China.
 

Jcharger

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I think it is sad that the small farmers have been run out. We are in a city, so not a farm, but a number of the people I know have family roots with farming and a number of us try hard to focus our buying on the small farms. Unfortunately, I don't think that is most and in many cases it costs more.
 

PurpleBeeper

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Your farmers and politicians whined and complained during the recent NAFTA negotiations about Canada's dairy subsidies and import restrictions. Sure, we can't buy milk for 99 cents a gallon but our dairy farms aren't the one's going under. The biggest problem is the U.S.'s overproduction and the lack of any control. Overproduction means farmers end up selling their product at rock bottom prices, barely scrape out a living and usually end up tossing in the towel to large conglomerates. And now they want access to our market !! The solution is not a larger market but lower production and higher prices. The U.S. dairy industry needs a marketing board to oversee heard size, production and pricing. Sure, consumer cost will increase but the choice is simple, pay more for US milk or have all the farms shut down and get your milk from China.
Overall, I agree with what you're saying & you make some good points. Not knowing much about this subject....I just wonder if we could find a way to export more & feed starving people of the world while still turning a profit? Make cheese & ship it to Africa? I really have no idea, but I know there's a lot of people starving world wide, so I'm a little bit hesitant to just cut production. I'm sure others know much more about this...actual farmers. Is the problem that the people who need our extra food can't afford to pay for it...simple as that?
 

mopar 3 B

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I seen the writing on the wall clear back in the late 60's. The government wanted nothing to do with small family farms. The bean counters called them nonproductive and not cost affective. Department of ag wanted to control what was grown, acres of production and markets to control food prices.
Dad farmed for over 30 years before getting out. I have Uncles that farmed for better than 50 years before deciding to let someone else carry the risk for cash rent.
One Uncle stated it quite well about 8 years ago. He milked about 30 cows, had about 40 head of sows, chickens, a few ducks and geese. Farm about 300 acres and a garden. All this and made a decent living. Before he quite farming the milk cows were gone. No one wanted to pickup milk from 30 cows. The quality could not be regulated over dairy operations of that size. Hogs were gone. Could no longer raise for less than cost of production. Same went the chickens. No longer a market for duck or goose eggs.
He said we now buy every thing we eat in town as do many off our neighbors, we once only bought what we could not produce.
Yes that was the demise of the family farm - no longer self supporting and that was the designed government way.
 

gkent

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Is the problem that the people who need our extra food can't afford to pay for it...simple as that?

There are many, many charities who give food to the starving masses. However there is so much graft at the top of those foreign countries that much of the food either goes to waste or is stolen and sold on the black market. There are many "stories" out there but one that sticks in my mind was an African nation (go figure) stricken by a severe drought and famine. Planeloads of food and water was flown in BUT the dictatorship of the country insisted that it be distributed using vehicle purchased in that country. As each criteria for distribution was met another was added on. Who knows if any ever got to the needy. Personally, I don't give a damn anymore about the starving masses. One group goes in distributing birth control and they're followed by the missionaries who tell them birth control is a sin. And so they reproduce like rats. But the government leaders are all living like kings and there is always a strong military. Its a scam. Have the world feel sorry for you and send aid and skim 90% of it (if not all) to line your pockets. So I disagree with you completely on that point. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day - teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. No freebees.
 

gkent

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A farmer was once asked what he'd do if he won a ten million dollar lottery. He replied "I'd probably keep farming till I lost it all".
 
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