Small farmers fear future of dairy industry

June 29, 2018 12:23 PM

Even on the longest days of the year, Amy Hoefele is up and working when the sun rises over her farm just outside of Fonda.

First milking is at 6 a.m. Her husband handles the farm, while Hoefele works a full-time sales job in her home office until 5 p.m. Then, she's back out to the barn until 8 p.m. That is a 15-hour day and every day of hard work, the farm is losing money. When the milk check comes in, it doesn't even cover the cost to produce the milk.

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"There's things we'd like to do, repairs, new buildings. All that gets put off in times like this and we just focus on taking care of our girls," said Hoefele.

Taking care of the 75 girls is Hoefele's dream job. She just bought this farm two years ago, but she regrets it some days.

"Sometimes. It depends what day you asked me and what's occurring that day. But to us, this is what we want to do. Farming is a way of life, so you push through and stay positive," said Hoefele.

The Hoefeles say they couldn't sell the farm even if they wanted. Selling would not be enough to cover the debt and they say no one is buying dairy right now, anyway.

There are farmers who have sold all their cows and some of their equipment and are still in the hole. Doug LaGrange sold his cows last August. The farm was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt when he made the decision.

"So this is our main milk cow barn, used to be filled with 250 cows," said Doug LaGrange, as he opened the overhead door to the barn.

LaGrange's voice echoed through the empty barn as he explained his farm's situation.

It's eerie to see the cow-less stalls and motionless fans, the bushes growing up over all those awards they won for the quality of their milk. The roots of farming run so far back, there's a blue historical marker out front.

After 12 generation on the land in New Scotland, and 8 generations of farmers, Doug LaGrange had to be the one to shut it down.

"I sit down with the $25,000 milk check and I have $38,000 worth of bills every two weeks. It just doesn't work."

LaGrange can't control what he's paid for his milk.

The federal government sets the price using a complicated formula. It isn't connected to what you pay in stores for a gallon.

For consumers, a gallon of milk costs about the same as it did in 2003. In 2014, farmer's prices hit a high, but they dropped about 30 percent in 2015 and stayed there.

Earlier this week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand proposed an amendment to the farm bill, authorizing $300 million in emergency relief for dairy farmers. She says similar funding was made available to cotton farmers in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This situation is so dire, a co-op sent suicide prevention letters to its farmers earlier this year.

Farmers are getting out. There are about 20 percent fewer dairy farms today in New York than even 10 years ago, but about the same number of cows.

The 4,400 farms left are producing more milk. The state says the average cow today produces more than double the amount she was producing in 1970.

State Agriculture and Markets commissioner Richard Ball says that is the problem -- too much milk. Dairy exports are down three to four percent. With tariff talk ramping up, Ball is worried about an even bigger hit.

He says the exodus of farmers does not have to continue. He believes there is a place for small, medium, and large farmers, but says all farmers need to look in the mirror.

"Who's our customer, what do they want, and are we meeting their needs?" said Ball. "I think this is where the dairy industry in particular has kind of gotten separated. We've been so good at what we do in production, that we don't think about the consumer or what they want."

WEB EXTRA: Full interview with State AG Commissioner Richard Ball

Still, the state is trying to get New Yorkers to buy more dairy through marketing and school programs. In the past two years, the state has put $50 million into plants making dairy products with a longer shelf life, like cheese and butter.

Ball, a Schoharie County dairy farmer turned vegetable farmer, says he's optimistic about the long term.

"Today, I'm more excited than I've ever been about the future of agriculture," Ball said.

Back on the empty farm, LaGrange isn't as excited.

"This is getting bad," said LaGrange.

He says there's no bringing farmland back from asphalt.

"We need the local farmer, not only for the product, but for the local economy. That whole picture has to be understood and I'm worried that it's getting too late."

LaGrange has a desk job now. He's the town supervisor. His old herd is spread out among fewer, likely much bigger, farms.

The Hoefeles are still hanging on in one of the few places where the cows are known by names, and not just numbers.

See New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Annual Report here 


Asa Stackel & WNYT Staff

Copyright 2019 WNYT-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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