Underreported: The Plight of the American Dairy Farmer

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In 1970, there were nearly 650,000 dairy farms in the United States. Today, there are only 54,000 farms—many of them run by large operators who dominate the industry. As milk prices have fallen—fetching half as much in 2009 per gallon as they did in 2008—small dairy farmers have taken a huge hit. Barry Estabrook explains the crisis facing small dairy farmers in the United States and efforts to pass a price-fixing agreement in Congress. Barry Estabrook’s article, "A Tale of Two Dairies," appears in Gastronomica.


Barry Estabrook

Comments [8]

Lorraine from Upstate from central NY

Here in NYS, we have about 6,000 dairy farms, average size of these thousands of farms is about 100 cows....hardly factory farms. We are fortunate in NY to have vast grasslands that provide the resource base for our NY milkshed. A wonderful aspect of NY's milkshed is that grazing on these grasslands translates into increased biodiversity and habitat for various grasslands species. As each dairy farm falls in my part of the state, it is replaced by large lot subdivisions, where the people mow out huge lawns surrounding new homes.
As to milk pricing, the market is controlled by a tiny handful of large corporations such as Dean Foods. The system encourages the lowest price possible to the farmer. Dairy farmers Upstate have never received much in the way of support from Manhattan leaders who have demanded the cheapest milk possible for their constituents. A look at the "milk price map" shows that NY's farmers receive significantly less than dairy farmers in surrounding states. Going one step further, NY's dairy farmers are receiving about 1/2 of what Canadian farmers just over the border receive. When dairy farmers tried to organize for a decent price several years ago, NYC Pulbic Advocate Mark Greene worked to keep NY's milk cheap. Unfortunately, no one had any vision as to what this meant for the economies of rural NY counties.
Yet another Upstate NY industry is experiencing difficulty. Governor Paterson had absolutely zero interest in NY's agriculture, let's hope Governor Cuomo will look beyond Manhattan to the industries and businesses that sustain rural NY.

Jan. 14 2011 05:14 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@ Nelle Verela

I specifically said cows’ milk. Yes, very important for calves. Not so important for adult humans or for any adult mammal for that matter. Human milk is ideal for baby humans and oddly enough no one asserts that adult humans need to be consuming human milk on a daily basis. Nature does not necessitate any adult animal to consume 3 servings of milk (according to US guidelines) from another species per day. For abundant examples please refer to every single animal on this planet.

As for human examples, historically, large potions of Asia (among other regions of the world) has gotten along just fine without costuming cows’ milk in any substantial fashion for centuries.

I’m not saying whether people should or shouldn’t consume dairy, but I am saying that it’s not all that important the we need to be all that concerned about “saving it” or wringing our hands over small farmers of a superfluous commodity.

Now, if the argument is to retain the cultural heritage or the artisanal crafts of some small dairies, that’s reasonable, but those types of farmers that have decided to cater to niche artisanal and higher end markets have already figured that out and are thriving. The small farms that are struggling, well, small businesses struggle, many fail, that’s the nature of small business, that’s not a reason in itself to commit suicide like Dean Pierson and leave behind your wife and four children. The mention of this dark tale is media sensationalism.

Perhaps a discussion of comparative environmental or animal welfare differences between large and small dairies would have been interesting. But that’s not the story that was presented here. Once upon a time we had lots of small dairy farmers, now we don’t. Okay, so what? Save the small dairy farmers for the sake of saving them? Sorry, not compelling.

There will still be plenty of milk without small dairies and even if there is far less milk or if the price hikes up, no one is going to stave unless they are too stubborn to figure out how to get by without a product that is hardly all the necessary, certainly not in the quantities it's consumed in this country.

Jan. 14 2011 12:19 PM
Nelle Verela from 66621

So milk is a "cultural thing" for those of European origin? Glad to know that. I must have been misinformed. Nature puts a milk "valve" on every living female mammal for what I had always assumed was a very obvious purpose--to sustain life from birth.

As our dairy farmers are ground under the heels of "progress," perhaps the lack of available milk will be a living lesson to reinforce the old "fable" about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Result: no more eggs.

Perhaps our schools need to teach a course in Basic Foods 101. When no more milk is available, let's hear what the woefully ignorant are crying. Maybe they will just want a stronger joint to ease the pain of their hunger.

Jan. 14 2011 08:00 AM
Henry from Manhattan

Cows’ milk is superfluous. It’s not a “food group,” its one product reconstituted into various forms. I realize that this may sound very odd to many people who regard milk as if it is water and there is some public right to procure it, but it’s just a cultural food choice of European descended people that has a tendency to be fetishized.

I’m not against small farmers, but if you can’t make it producing milk then raise your prices, unionize with other small farmers, or produce something else. If you can’t be a small farmer of milk then be a small farmer of something else.

Diary is subsidized and promoted by the government in a way that other products are not: the feed is subsidized, the product is subsidized, the environmental problems are externalized, the products are pushed through government sponsored propaganda and in institutions (schools and WIC, etc).

I’m sorry, but until that situation is rectified I’m not really interested in “saving dairies.” Probably, the issue of subsidization and loss of small dairies is one and the same.

But I just can’t get worked up over the plight of one tiny portion of an industry where my tax dollars go to support said industry as a whole. The dairy industry always complains of falling milk prices and lost revenue, yet million dollar television and print ad campaigns for milk (Got Milk? Celebrity milk mustaches) cheese (Happy Cows Make Great Cheese), yogurt (Dannon), ice cream, etc. are perpetually in circulation.

We keep hearing about how the dairy industry as a whole is struggling, but if they can’t stay in business with that amount of government promotion and subsidization, advertising and product ubiquity, and little if any global competition, there’s nothing that can really be done.

I say pull the plug on all industry support, and let it rebuild itself from the scratch. If dairy prices are high, so be it. If consumers don’t want to pay the price for dairy products, or if there are less dairies to supply them, then that’s how it should be. And let’s get out of the business of feeling sorry for an industry and propping it up.

Jan. 13 2011 04:43 PM
Lisa from Brooklyn

The story about the farmer upstate who took his own life brought to mind the news stories I have read regarding the 200,000+ traditional farmers in India committing suicide as a result of agribusiness policies in their country in the last decade.

(The Documentary "Dirt" has a segment on this topic)

Jan. 13 2011 02:06 PM
Peg from Upstate

Sounds like our dairy system is just as arcane as our health care system compared to the rest of the world. Americans seem to tolerate all the excess middlemen collecting along the way.

Jan. 13 2011 01:52 PM
Juli from Skillman, NJ

They don't see the light of day at a certain age? Everything is brought to them? Forget the quality of the milk; that is just disgraceful and cruel!!

Soy it is!!

Jan. 13 2011 01:49 PM
Josh Levine

I read or heard somewhere that Milford based Bobolink Dairy is the first new dairy in NJ in something like 40 yrs... And bakers may be interested that the farm, which also has some cooking classes, features a wood oven designed by the late great Alan Scott

Jan. 13 2011 01:47 PM

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