Dairy farmers are getting a sour deal
WATERVILLE, N.Y. -- My husband and I farm in central New York State, milking 60 cows with another 40 head of young stock. We're third-generation farmers and our farm has been in the same family for nearly 100 years. We have farmed it for 43 years, and 2009 was the worst year of our lives.
Our income from milk was down $58,000 from 2008. In 2008, our milk price average was $19.81 per hundred pounds. In 2009 it was $13.65, a difference of $6.16 per hundred pounds of milk (the standard hundredweight unit is roughly equal to 12 gallons of milk; current retail prices are at least three times what producers are paid). At the same time our expenses increased dramatically.
We face escalating debt and for the first time in years have no credit for any of the items essential to running our business. We owe $3,200 on a fuel bill and can't pay our feed bill. Without credit we can't feed our cattle. We have cows and tractor tires to be replaced, machinery to be repaired, and have eliminated TV/cable and trash pick-up.
The only thing that has kept us going has been sheer determination and the fact that we sold our woodlot at a 50 percent loss from a year ago. That woodlot was our retirement fund.
On Jan. 21, a dairy farmer 150 miles from here shot and killed his 51 milking cows then turned the gun on himself. The police said that he was having personal problems. You can bet the farm that those personal problems had everything to do with the drop in milk prices the past year.
Our senators and members of Congress have blown a lot of hot air, and that's about the end of it. We received a 32-cent per hundredweight DELAP (Dairy Economic Loss Assistance Payment), but it did nothing to make up for the $6 to $10 loss for every 100 pounds of milk all year as the major dairy processors made record profits. How many more farmers must commit suicide before Congress does something meaningful?
As one of seven dairy farmers from across the country who recently participated in a teleconference call to deliver this message to Congress and USDA yet again, I'm concerned that there will soon be no family-owned dairy farmers left. That would destroy more and more of rural America, not to mention the supply of available fresh, local dairy products. We have a broken system that needs fixing.
Since 2005, when the Department of Justice began its investigation of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and dairy giant Dean Foods for price manipulation at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, we've waited for and demanded change in a dairy pricing system that benefits only processors while hurting farmers, consumers, and grocers. The results of that investigation have still not been made public. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) fined Dairy Farmers of America $12 million in December 2008. That was a drop in the bucket to them, but a start. Nothing has come to light since then, and we have to ask ourselves: Is that all there is?
Dairy farmers don't want a handout, just the fair prices we deserve. We simply can't wait for the 2012 farm bill. We need S. 1645, introduced last August by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) to be considered and enacted now. (This legislation would direct the government to base the minimum Class II milk price on the average cost of producing milk in the 48 contiguous states.) We need the Department of Justice and USDA to end this industry's concentration, which puts us at the mercy of milk processors.
On March 12 in Iowa, the government hosted the first of five workshops to address this problem across agriculture. The dairy session will be in Madison, Wis., on June 7. In Iowa, dairy farmers urged the Department of Justice to act immediately on its pending investigation and to further probe the broken system as part of the outcome of these workshops. We need action now -- not next year, or in three years.
Our farms, our homes, and our communities are at stake.
Gretchen Maine is a Waterville, N.Y., dairy farmer and member of Progressive Agriculture Organization, an organizational member of the National Family Farm Coalition.