Tough Choices for Struggling Dairy Farmers

The cows at Peaceful Valley Dairy farm in Westtown, New York are eating their lunch. © 2018 Brian Ford

Click the play button above to hear what farmers have to say about the state of the dairy industry

Audio transcript:SCRIPT PDF

By Brian Ford SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – The American dairy industry seems to be dying. Milk prices are low, and that is causing problems for many small dairy farms.

Mike Miedema is the 35-year-old owner of Peaceful Valley Dairy Farm in Westtown, New York, where he currently milks 90 cows. He lives on the same property as his farm, so he only has to commute about 150 feet to work.

His whole life seems to be dedicated to farming. He wakes up every morning at 5:00 A.M. to start his 15 hour work day.

His daily tasks include milking, feeding, and tending to the cows, along with cleaning the barn and completing a slew of tasks in order for the farm to run smoothly.

With dairy consumption declining in recent years, the government regulated milk prices have, too.

Miedema explained how in the past, his income followed a cycle. There would be a period of low milk prices followed by a period of high milk prices, and that would repeat.

“Now it seems like it’s all down,” said Miedema. “It’s almost like the cycles don’t exist no more.”

He said this downward trend is making it hard for him to stay in business. His margins are getting tighter and tighter.

And many farmers are in the same situation.

Farmers are being forced to sell their milk for less than what it costs to produce, so many are leaving the industry.

There were nearly 650,000 dairy farms in the U.S. in 1970, but there were only about 40,00 at the end of 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the farmers who was forced out of the industry by low milk prices is 37-year-old Dean Vellenga. He grew up on a farm, and was a solo farmer for the last 12 years.

Vellenga operated his own farm less than a mile down the road from Miedema’s up until August of this year. Even though he loved the farming lifestyle, he felt that the amount of work he was putting in wasn’t worth the amount of money he was making. So he sold his cows and shut down.

“The future for me was so dim,” said Vellenga. “It was like get out now before it gets worse.”

He is now working for a paving company, but misses farming very much.

Dairy Farmers of America is the is a milk marketing cooperative that Vellenga and Miedema were and are members of. The co-op is responsible for picking up and selling milk from it’s member farmers.

Nichole Owens, Communications Manager for DFA acknowledged the milk prices are causing a very stressful time for dairy farmers.

“We’ve seen a sustained low milk price for the past four years or more,” explained Owens. “But really the crux of it all is the dairy industry is changing.”

Owens believes diary will always have a role in households even though milk consumption is declining. She says the future of the industry will most likely be focused on an expected increase in demand for dairy proteins.

But until that time comes and farmers make more money, it’s likely that we will see more and more farms continue to shut down.