Local dairy operations hit by drops in US and export markets and from the sky
CHATHAM–Dairy farming in Columbia County is in the midst of what Eric Ooms, co-owner of the 400-cow Oomsdale Farm here, calls “a perfect storm.” And while politicians from Albany to Washington propose a raft of remedies, the situation doesn’t look like it will improve any time soon.
The first factor is the current price farmers receive for fluid milk–$12.15 per hundredweight for June milk, Mr. Ooms . That’s the lowest it’s been in about 20 years and a 39% decrease in just one year. The website for the state’s senior U.S. Senator, Chuck Schumer (D), says that for the approximately 40 county dairy farms milking an average of 175 cows each, the milk price translates to a loss of about $693,000 a month.
Three years ago Mr. Ooms, who is also vice president of the state Farm Bureau, believed that at $14 the price was “as bad as it would be.” But now he says he and his father and two brothers, all co-owners, have had to start borrowing money “to make ends meet.” And it’s not just their farm. “The whole industry’s been borrowing money for six months,” he said, and some farmers “are getting to the point where their bankers may not lend them more.”
The weather–and its effect on feed–may well be the crowning blow to some farms: If they cannot produce their own feed, they will be forced to buy it. And while the weather hasn’t impaired the hay and corn crops much, Mr. Ooms said that his fields are so wet that it’s impossible to get into them.
Beyond the price or milk and the monsoon-like weather, Mr. Ooms said the “whole economy” is hurting the farmer. Forty percent of cheese is consumed outside the home, he said, and people aren’t dining out as often now. Exports of dairy products are also down, and a stronger dollar is giving other countries an opportunity to export their surpluses to Asia and Russia, displacing the more expensive U.S. exports.” All these factors, he said, “have conspired to hurt us a great deal.”
Among the measures proposed by Senator Schumer is a bill that would increase demand for dairy products by encouraging the US Department of Agriculture to purchase more of the surplus, as well as restoring a program to promote dairy exports. All this region’s federal legislators–Senators Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D), Representative Scott Murphy (D-20th)–as well as Governor David Paterson have joined forces to support dairy farms, emphasizing programs from increasing the floor for milk prices to increasing demand for dairy products.
One farmer has packed it in since the price began to decrease. Shaker View Farm, a 100-cow dairy and the last dairy farm in New Lebanon, sold its herd last June. Farm owner Lawrence Benson said it was “too much work for too little return” for his daughter and son-in-law, who were milking the herd after his retirement. The farm’s remaining young stock will be sold this fall. Meanwhile, the farm faces the same weather-related problems with getting feed in. “It’s almost impossible to dry the hay crop,” he said. “Underneath it’s very wet. Too much water is more difficult than a dry year.”
One proposal co-sponsed by Rep. Murphy is to “retire” cows, to pay farmers to reduce their herds by shipping cows to slaughterhouses. In addition to opposition from the beef industry, which fears the herd reduction will depress beef prices, few family farms would find the prospect attractive. Barbara Benson of Shaker View said that their herd “didn’t go for slaughter. I don’t think any of us could have handled that.”
When the dairy industry suffers, so do the businesses that sell to and service the famers, said long-time Stuyvesant farmer Bill Gumaer. When he started his dairy in 1970, he said, “there was a tractor dealer within five miles of us. Now they’re few and far between–and they can’t afford to have parts on hand.”
Mr. Gumaer partially insulated himself from fluctuating milk prices for his 30-cow herd when he began his bottling plant and home-delivery route several years ago. While he does sell some surplus milk to a dairy co-op, he says he’s not in the same straits as many other farmers. He tries to be “conservative,” he said, “And I’ve been at it too long to have all my eggs in one basket.”
To contact Gail Heinsohn email gheinsohn@ColumbiaPaper.com