Family dairy farms struggle to hang on

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All my life, I have been certain of one thing. Dairy farmers are not paid nearly enough.

Now, this has been true even when others who write about such things were saying that the industry was strong, the price better than it had been for years. I don’t care what the authors of such things say — dairy farmers have never been paid nearly enough, not even in those good swings.

Downright shameful

The current situation that dairy farmers in the U.S. are facing is downright shameful. The milk price per hundredweight is so low that dairy farmers are losing money before they ever roll out of bed in the very early morning hours to do a job that is demanding beyond description.

While our government began bailing out the large banks and the auto industry one year ago, the dairy industry was suffering in much the same way. Those who handle the milk after it leaves the dairy farm have the ability to make a whopping profit, regardless of what the dairy farmer is being paid for the raw product. This includes dairy processors, wholesalers, those who market the products and the retailers who set it on the shelf for each of us to buy and enjoy.

While this set of circumstances has spiraled out of control, the dairy farmer is losing more than $100 per cow each month. For the family farm, milking around 100 cows, let’s say, that figures out to a loss of $10,000. This is a loss that the family farm struggles to absorb every single month. That is the kick in the teeth that is beyond comprehension, as escalating operating bills keep coming in, and the work keeps needing done.

Living costs go through the roof

I have discussed this over the past months with friends and family, and while the milk check continues to shrink, their family living costs go through the roof. Consider the cost of health insurance alone.

“We have way too much demanding work here on the farm for either one of us to consider going in search of a full-time job that would hopefully provide health insurance,” one man told me. “Then again, even if one of us could go looking, jobs with benefits have become nearly impossible to land.”

Many farm families have had no choice but to go without health insurance because they simply cannot begin to afford to pay the premiums.

“There are other bills that must be paid. The high price of health insurance has become a luxury item we can no longer afford,” this fellow said, asking that I not use his name. “It sort of makes me feel like a deadbeat, but deadbeats don’t work pretty much 18 hours a day.”

He added that he can’t afford to stay in business, but he can’t afford to sell out right now, either. He is stuck in a spiraling situation that is nightmarish.

Impact each one of us

If the U.S. dairy industry were to collapse, it could certainly impact each one of us in enormous ways. The processing mega-giants who have lobbyists to keep the milk price to the dairy farmer low in order to increase their incredible profits have had the power to force trade agreements that are not healthy for the farmer or the consumer but have proven highly lucrative for the fat cats running the show.

This incredible imbalance has created a situation that already is causing us as a country to purchase imports through Milk Protein Concentrates from other countries with limited (and sometimes zero) health regulation on the farms and in the processing plants. These products can then be used in processed dairy products such as cheese, placed on the grocery shelf in a pretty package, accompanied by the high-dollar marketing to encourage us to buy it.

The Farm Bureau encourages all of us to continue buying dairy products, but look for the most wholesome by checking for the “real” check mark on the dairy products you purchase. Talk to your grocer, encouraging them to purchase from processors that are fairly reimbursing farmers.

We each need to be in touch with our legislator, urging them to enforce antitrust laws. There is absolutely no time to waste. This is a serious issue as family dairy farms struggle to hang on.

And to truly turn things toward fairness, I wish it were within someone’s power to demand that legislators and the all-powerful mega-processor had to do at least a month’s stint in the milking parlor. Let them live, breathe and sweat the realities of the hard truth of this occupation, including going without life insurance, paid holidays, weekends off.

Time to tip the scales

It’s time to tip the scales toward those who do the production work that fuels one very important part of our national food supply.

About the Author

Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college. More Stories by Judith Sutherland

One Comment

  1. mahmoud al shaer says:

    I believe the price of any type of pasteurized milk in the market shelf is the same price for the consumer.who takes the benefit is the factory. then the farm loss gone and transferred to profits for the factories owners. then here should be hard step to be taken, and there is many of ideas can be done to solve the problem , because the globalisation plans, need only the big farms to be in business and the small farm to be out from the business. Allah bless all of you

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