Dairy farmers forgotten by government
Recently the Agri-Mark Milk Producers Cooperative Board of Directors directed that a letter be included with member farmers’ milkchecks, containing contact information for suicide hotlines and mental health resources. Mailed on Feb.1, this was an immediate sensation with dairy farm families throughout the Northeast. Opinion was mixed; some were highly critical, others saw the initiative as a well meaning, albeit clumsy attempt to get ahead of potential tragedy within the co-op’s financially strapped, emotionally drained, desperately hard-pressed member farmers.
Their difficulties stem from three consecutive years of ruinously low milk prices fostered by a national overproduction of milk, acerbated by last years dismal crop season, which left them with a seriously deficient quantity of exceptionally poor quality forage for their cattle. As a result, many Northeast dairy farm families are destitute and either approaching or outright facing bankruptcy.
In the near term there is little help available. Looking down the road, an attempt must be made at getting at the underlying problem: a national overproduction of milk. The most direct way to achieve this is through the horror of “supply management” — the very thing the Trump Administration is demanding Canada dismantle in the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations. Given the several decades of success supply management has fostered for Canadian dairy farmers, frustrated U.S. negotiators have been met by a steadfast Canadian refusal to concede to this demand.
Unlike Canada, U.S. dairy farm numbers, in fact, all farm numbers have slipped below the point of political significance. The Trump Administration has no appreciation of the importance of U.S. agriculture to the U.S. economy. Wilbur Ross, current U.S. Commerce Secretary, is on record scornfully suggesting U.S. farmers “get over themselves” and come to realize they will not receive any special consideration in the forging of any forthcoming U.S. trade deals going forward under Mr. Trump, even though U.S. agricultural exports have been one of the very few bright spots in the perpetual imbalance of U.S. trade.
Short of throttling back U.S. milk production into the confines of U.S. domestic demand, there is no practical, non-political solution to U.S. family dairy farmers’ financial difficulties. What is most discouraging about advancing this sensible, practical idea is that it has always been advocated first and foremost by thoughtful U.S. dairymen for a century or more. Unfortunately, U.S. dairymen as a group have ignored this sensible concept and tried to beat each other by producing more milk: choosing ruinous competition over constructive cooperation.
Meanwhile Canadian dairymen cooperate to maintain positive farm income. In a period of rampant world oversupply of milk, current Canadian milk price is in the neighborhood of $23.00 per hundredweight, not great, but with careful management, sustainable. In dire contrast, the U.S. price is projected to be $14 to $15, before marketing deductions — at least $4 per hundredweight and, with the deducts, likely much further below the estimated cost of production. Hence, for Agri-Mark leadership, the perceived necessity of the included fact sheets for suicide hotlines and mental health resources might well have seemed appropriate and logical.
Except in the realm of sporting events, ruthless competition tends to be an uniquely American malady. For U.S. milk producers, the current, twisted concept of all out, cutthroat competition invariably fosters a race to the economic bottom, destroying not only family farms and local farm service industries, but also brings the economic reduction of entire rural communities. As such, we should rightfully fear this as an unmixed evil of the sort that will ruin us both as a nation and a people.
When I farmed, I knew I could never produce myself to prosperity. Farm machinery was a dreaded expense, with reliance on used machinery often retrieved from junk piles and rebuilt. “Investment” was the best artificial insemination genetics I could afford, carefully raising the resulting heifers and trying to provide the best environment for them as they became cows. The goal was to produce quality milk at the lowest practical cost. This philosophy made me very unpopular with agricultural bankers, whose mantra to farm clients has always been, “expand or die.” They tend to worship at the alter of cash flow, rather than farm profitability. Cash flow is achieved by producing every last drop of milk possible, which in turn swamps the market with a perpetual U.S. overproduction. What makes money for bankers seldom makes money for farmers.
I often fear we who advocate for America’s family farms are merely fighting a rearguard action against the catastrophic eventuality of factory style, concentrated animal feeding operation, (CAFO) dairy farms, each with multiple thousands of cows. This menacing development is a looming threat to U.S. groundwater resources. It appears inevitable given the industry’s current direction and this will, in no way, serve the nation’s common interest.
Generations of honest work and sacrifice will be lost, rural communities will decay even further and some will disappear altogether, while the spirits of decent, desperately hardworking family farmers will be broken. The family farm, an American icon which has served our nation excellent stead since its obscure colonial beginnings, will be no more. With it will also disappear Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an equally iconic American yeoman farmer. U.S. agriculture, for better or worse, will become corporately collectivized, ultimately becoming another plaything in the hands of the nation’s wealthiest one percent.
On this beautiful late winter afternoon, as I look out over my beloved Lower Cassadaga Valley, I mourn for what once was and I dread what will likely be. Nonetheless, honor, decency and an ingrained cussedness requires a continued outspoken resistance to the needless, mindless destruction of the greatest institution developed in the American experience; the American family farm.
Nate Wilson, retired after 40 years of dairy farming, is a Sinclairville resident.