From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine
By STEVE VIRKLER
— Dairy farmers gave elected officials and their representatives an
earful on how low milk prices are threatening their livelihoods at a
session Jan. 13 at the Lowville fire hall.
all about the legacy,” Leyden farmer Carrie Higby told a crowd of more
than 100 people, most of them farmers or involved in the agriculture
industry, along with representatives from county, state and federal
governments. “What legacy are we going to leave for the next
Robert Domagala said he has been farming his whole life, loves it and doesn’t even mind the early mornings and long hours.
“I’d just love to get paid for what I do,” he said.
lost our wages, but nobody else lost theirs,” local farmer Joseph
Sullivan said. “Farming is not a business. Farming is a heritage.”
raw milk prices to farmers have dropped, retail prices of milk and
dairy products have not seen the same reduction, West Martinsburg dairy
farmer Ernest Beyer said.
brought up included the inability to cover production costs, an apparent
push for larger farms to the detriment of the smaller ones, a federal
push for skim milk in schools and control of the market by large
entities such as Dairy Farmers of America and Dairy Marketing Services.
veterinarian Dr. Peter Ostrum said he understands farmers’ frustrations
but urged dairy farmers in the crowd to pick their battles, consider
customer demand and the amount people will pay for organic products and
adopt best-management practices.
“We have to adapt to a changing economic climate,” he said.
Several of the governmental panelists said they are well aware of the milk pricing situation, being farmers themselves.
know where every one of you are coming from, because I’m one of you,”
county Legislature Chairman Michael Tabolt, R-Croghan, said.
said he was fortunate enough to have a son who wanted to continue his
family’s farming tradition but added that his son couldn’t attend the
meeting because he recently went from two to three milkings per day in
hopes of staying financially solvent.
He admitted that increasing milk
production is probably counterproductive, since a surplus is partly
causing the low raw milk prices.
“But it’s one of the last ideas we came up with to make it,” said Tabolt, one of six county legislators at the meeting.
officials and their representatives encouraged farmers to band together
to come up with constructive ways to help the situation.
a group, we can get things done,” said David Fisher, president of the
New York Farm Bureau and a farmer from Madrid in St. Lawrence County.
Karelus, Lewis County Farm Bureau president, said input is always
welcome on how best to lobby government officials, and her board has
three vacant seats.
Elizabeth Swearingin suggested the formation of a smaller group to get
organized and present a clear message to state and federal
“You have to come to a consensus on what you want,” agreed state Assemblywoman Addie Jenne, D-Theresa.
said she heard several divergent opinions from speakers at the two-hour
session but is looking for direction from farmers themselves, not just
organizations like Farm Bureau or Cornell Cooperative Extension, on how
best to combat low milk prices.
mentioned ideas such as New York developing its own milk price support
system or pushing for increased milk exports but said she is open to any
and all suggestions.
“I just want us to pick a route, and let’s go,” Jenne said. “We’ve waited too long.”
encouraged those in attendance to put her and her fellow lawmakers to
work to help secure the future of north country dairy farming.
farmers also attended two presentations about dairy markets issues and
business management Jan. 12 at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of
Andrew Novakovic, a
professor of agriculture economics at Cornell University, Ithaca,
presented anticipated market trends, industry problems and how elected
officials can help farmers through a webinar hosted by the Cornell
Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County, Ballston Spa. Jason Karzses, a
farm management specialist for the university’s Pro-Dairy Program,
followed with his presentation about operational statistics and business
“It was very informative,”
said John Peck, county legislator and owner of Peck Homestead Farm in
Carthage. “It’s nice to get a professional opinion on how (the market)
looks and where we’re going and where we’ve been.”
farmers and Novakovic claimed that elected officials need to introduce
policies that help farmers manage their expenses and increase their
Novakovic said farmers
should encourage their elected officials to advocate for programs that
help protect their liquidity and ensure they can pay their bills. He
also said he hopes the new administration under President Donald
Trump will preserve existing trade agreements and allow farmers to sell
fat-based milk products to public schools.
said preserving established foreign trade agreements prevents surplus
and provides farmers with income they need to maintain their operations,
adding that he hopes the new administration will establish stronger
trade relations than the previous administration. He also said policies
that protect liquidity would benefit farmers more than polices that
“Liquidity is absolutely the problem with the dairy industry,” he said.
Millick, owner of Golf Crest Dairy in Denmark, and Bernie and Marcia
Gohlert, owners of Hilltop Farms in Lowville, said children need the
essential nutrients in fat-based milk.
“We make a very wholesome product,” Millick said.
claims about milk dumping received mixed responses from local dairy
farmers, with many expressing their own concerns about the issue.
cooperatives have too much distressed milk when processing plants are
closed on weekends and holidays, Novakovic said, causing cooperatives to
dump the milk when they cannot afford to export it to out-of-state
facilities. Novakovic said elected officials should create reforms that
balance the milk market and lower the cost of shipping milk products.
said the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies should
report more distressed milk data to determine the cause of dumping and
the amount of milk cooperatives have dumped. Millick said that in
addition to dealing with processing plants’ schedules, the lack of
operating plants in the state has also increased milk dumping.
“There are a number of plants in the state sitting idly,” Millick said.
farmers claimed they already knew many of Karzses’s suggestions, his
presentation provided useful statistics and reinforced successful
business management techniques.
to his presentation, Karzses encouraged farmers to assess all areas of
performance, know their finances and market trends, understand their
financial risks and use financial risk tools and develop a “formal”
business model. He also provided charts about net farm income, cost
allocation and profitability among more than 150 surveyed dairy farms in
2014 and 2015.
Peck said the
information was interesting because it showed the differences in cost
and cost allocation between small and large farms. Millick and the
Gohlerts said Karzses’s presentation served as a helpful reminder for
managing their businesses.
most farmers are running as efficiently as they possibly can,” Millick
said, but “it’s always good to analyze the numbers and have the
In addition to the
suggestions from Novakovic and Karzses, Millick said elected officials
should create policies that establish fair milk prices instead of
polices that provide “handouts.” The Gohlerts said supporting
institutions like Cornell Cooperative Extension and its educational
programs and showing farmers’ challenges to the public are more valuable
than government programs.
“It’s very difficult to be a farmer,” Marcia Gohlert said.
Marcus Wolf contributed to this report..