Milk prices taking toll on local farmers
CAZENOVIA, N.Y. » Local dairy farmers are facing their fourth year struggling to make ends meet.
Gene and Anne Merriman started Granny Anne Registered Holsteins in 2006 and say the farm has had only one or two years good years in that span.
The Merrimans oversee more than 200 cows, 90 of which are milked twice a day; once at 4:30 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. It takes around 10 hours to milk every cow on the farm and, by the end of the day, Gene and Anne have gathered around 5,000 pounds of milk on average.
But milk prices have been steadily dropping since 2014, when the average hit $24 per 100 pounds, the highest price since at least 2000. Prices quickly dropped to an average of about $17 per 100 pounds of milk in 2015, $16 in 2016 and $17 last year. Gene’s shipment of 142,314 pounds
of milk in February went for $15.18 per 100 pounds.
Gene laid out his monthly expenses, ranging from $8,227 in feed and grain, $4,627 for supplies, $1,092 to haul his milk and many more. It’s hard for him to make a profit and, instead, finds himself $2,331 in the hole.
“Everyone’s expenses are going to be different,” Gene said. “But the way I see it? It costs me $77 to turn the lights on in the morning.”
And the cost calculated does not include equipment, mortgage or wages. For 2016, Gene and Anne reported a total net loss of $151,152.
“You look at these costs and nothing is out of line. These are the costs to run a dairy farm,” Gene said. “If it wasn’t for my other business, Center State Agriculture Service, supplementing the farm, we’d be so behind on bills they’d be foreclosing on me.”
Monica and Bill Cody run Cody Farms, established in 1870 by Monica’s greatgrandfather Kendall Cody. While they are surviving financially, Monica said it’s becoming more difficult to reinvest in the farm to keep it in a position to thrive in the future.
“Month to month, it’s basically a juggling act to pay bills on time,” Monica said. “A lot of older farmers are in a tough position because they don’t want to continue losing money farming, but if they sell their assets they are worth much less than they were a few years ago, especially cattle.”
Gene said the resale value for his farmis basically nothing and that he couldn’t give it away with the cost needed to operate it.
The overabundance of milk in themarket is just one of the reasons why prices are so low. The Dairy Farmers of America, a marketing cooperative that markets and sells milk in the northeastern United States, applies a market adjustment to the milk.
Gene said the DFA are making this adjustment because dairy farmers are overproducing and tell farmers that the milk has to go out to market at a lower price. Gene said this is meant to have a stabilizing effect, but he was concerned about the uncertainty.
“It was 52 cents in February and January was 57 cents,” Gene said. “You don’t know what the number is until you get the milk check. It’s like getting your paycheck and your boss says ‘He didn’t perform like he did last month, so we’re going to take a dollar an hour off’. ”
When Gene gets his milk checks and looks at his deductions, the difference between 52 cents and 57 cents could be $740 or $811 taken off with the rest of the deductions.
If he knew back in the early 2000s what he knew now about the diary farm, Gene said hewould have not invested in the farm.
“My wife has said since the day I built this farm that it’s nothing but a losing proposition and that I’m a knot head,” Gene said. “We go to these meetings and they have FarmNet for people with stress and we need them, but we need more than that. Our government should stand up and try to protect us.”
FarmNet hasmade strides in helping the farming community get their affairs in order and look at things in a different light, but with the crisis hanging over some farmers heads, some believe they’re worth more dead than alive, but don’t reach out.
Troy Bishopp works at the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and is a dairy farmer who said he has met other farm- ers in the community who were on the edge.
“I’ve sat at tables and my ears have been open. I’ve been through a few real emotional farm visits and they think ‘This may be it. I’ve been farming for 35 years and I can’t make the call.’ There’s a stigma for asking for help,” Bishopp said.
NY FarmNet Farm Family Consultant Erica Leubner said she was working with a younger farmer and thewords hewas using were setting off some redflags for her.
“‘All alone,’ ‘hopeless,’ ‘no one cares,’ ‘I have no help.’ I came right out and asked him,” Leubner said. “He said that day he drove out to the middle of the field with his truck and just put his head on the steering wheel. And I asked him if he had a gun in his truck and he said he would never do that to his family.”
By starting the conversation, Leubner was able to get the farmer to open up and start talking to him and let him know she would listen.
Gene and Anne recently attended a presentation by Cornell Cooperative Extension with NY FarmNet to discuss getting help for farmers in a crisis situation, whether it be financial or emotional.
By calling 1-800-547-3276, farmers can speak confidentially with FarmNet staff members who have knowledge in the agricultural field to help them find the best path for them.
“I grewup on a dairy farm and have a masters in social work,” Leubner said. “My part on the team is to help with the family piece. Personal well-being, conflict, stress. Withmy background, I can offer a lot of farmers who don’t want to initially talk about their problems.”
“We are completely free and confidential to any farmer in New York state and you will always get a real person when you call,” Program Coordinator Kate Downes said. “We started in the 1980s in response to the farm crisis then. It’s cyclical, unfortunately, but we helpwith financial, business planning, transitioning the farm, stress management and family communication.”
With low profits, piling bills and the threat of foreclosure, many are worried about dairy farmers’ wellbeing.
“Farmers don’t want to pay $250 an hour for a consultant. We’re seeing people who are overwhelmed and are wondering how they’re going to get out of this mess,” Leubner said. “A financial consultant and myself went to a farmand this was some- one who was suicidal when the initial call came in.”
Leubner said they worked with the farmer in crisis to help sort out what he owed. When he was able to see it all andw hat needed to be done, it brought him some relief.
When it came to longterm solutions, Gene said the public doesn’t owe farmers a living, but those in the government need to step up. Monica said part of the problem is the people who think they understand farming practices and end up diminishing what farmers do in a number of ways, whether they’re in politics or a special interest group.
“I’d like to see any DFA head boss or any politicians come in here and take care off 200-plus cows and know that when you turn the lights on and start the day, you’ve already lost money,” Gene said.
Anne Merriman pets Missy the cow at Granny Anne Farm on March 30, 2018.