Local Dairy Farmers Strive to Thrive: Delivering the Best — Fresh, Local, Healthy and Pure

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Contributing Writer

Walt Pickut

Sixteen hours a day and seven days a week… it’s just a regular work week for the people who put the cream in your coffee, the milk in your baby’s bottle and the cheese on your burger.

Chautauqua County’s dairy farmers, currently about 180 strong and 99% family owned, ranging from two or three cows to as many as 1600, continue to produce an outstanding, pure and nutritious product year after year in spite of economic conditions that would bankrupt and close almost any other business.

In fact, today dairy farms across the county are closing at unprecedented rates in spite of producing a flawless product almost everybody uses in one form or another.

Upside-down

Shoppers buy milk by the pint, quart and gallon. Farmers sell their milk by the hundredweight. “Today, dairy farmers can sell their milk for about $15–$15.50 per hundredweight (about 11 ½ gallons). The bad news is that it costs a dairy farmer $18–$20 to produce that hundredweight of milk,” according to Lisa Kempisty dairy and livestock educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension for Chautauqua County.

Chautauqua County’s dairy farmers today lose money on every gallon of milk they produce. The same is true across the United States. Experts say the country is currently “awash in milk, the surplus is huge. Dairy farmers have gotten very good at making milk.” Overproduction is a problem, supply and demand are upside down.

The problem is cyclic, a roller coaster market, according to every dairy farmer who spoke to the Jamestown Gazette. The good years have to support the bad years. In 2014, for example, the market paid as much as $25 per hundredweight for milk. Currently, however, the dairy market is enduring an unusually long and severe downside across the country. Unfortunately, in some cases, farmers have been forced to dump the milk they cannot sell.

Only farms with sizeable rainy day savings can make the leap between good years without borrowing, laying off good farmhands, adopting expensive automation and robotics, delaying important maintenance, or making other drastic cuts.

Brian Mead, a dairy farmer in Falconer, New York, retired three years ago after 41 years of milking his cows. The current downturn finally exhausted his resources. “I still miss milking my cows,” Mead said with obvious regret. “I loved every day of my dairy farming life.” Mead still owns the family farm handed down from his father, but today only raises beef and sells hay while doing local construction work to make ends meet.

Asked for his advice to someone who wants to enter dairy farming today, Mead said, “Unless you have a lot of help, it’s a very hard business to get into.” Mead’s story is now alarmingly common in Chautauqua County and across the nation.

Strength in Numbers

Milk is hard for a single, independent farmer to market alone with a farm to run every day. Dairy co-operatives, owned and operated by the member farms, like Upstate Niagara with about 350 Western New York farms, or the local Steamburg Cooperative with 50-60 farms, give producers the benefit of scale in marketing their product.

“Fluid milk is the trickiest dairy product to manage because it must reach the store shelves within one week of production. It is highly perishable,” according to Kaitlyn Walley-Stoll, Cornell Co-op’s Agriculture Program community educator. Cooperatives can collect and pool the milk quickly, guarantee uniform pasteurization, homogenization, standardization of butter fat content, nutrients and other factors, and provide scientific lab testing for safety. Co-ops also help producers direct their product to other uses, like cheese, powdered milk and for use as an ingredient in thousands of other products from pancake mix to milk chocolate and from ice cream to soups.

Co-ops also insure that every gallon of milk on a store shelf is fresh, free of all antibiotics, hormones and other impurities. Performing these intensive quality controls requires an investment which no single farmer can afford alone. Co-ops also help cushion market price fluctuations for their members.

“Hardly a farm in Chautauqua County doesn’t sell to or belong to a co-op today,” according to Walley-Stoll,. “And concerning the most time-honored farming traditions, aside from local Amish producers, manual milking is almost a lost art.” Walley-Stoll publishes a monthly newsletter, “Dairy Market Watch,” for local farmers to keep them informed about business trends, legislation, advances in agricultural science and more.

(L to R) Jim Estabrook, one of Jack Jones’ 400 prize dairy cows, and Jack during one of the day’s three milking times at the Jones Farm in Frewsburg, NY.

Why the Wild Cycles?

Dairy production cannot be turned on and off like a light switch. Cows must be milked every day. If they are sold to save costs in low times, a herd is hard to rebuild in good times. Only dairy farmers willing to lose money on every gallon seem able to operate in Chautauqua County today.

According to Jack Jones, a successful Frewsburg dairy farmer who milks a herd of more than 400 cows three times a day, a profit margin averaging a mere 1% over the years is not unusual for dairy farmers. “That’s why we see more closures every year,” he explained.

Overseas and foreign export markets for US milk products are one of the most important drivers of the boom and bust cycle in dairy farming, Upstate Niagara Co-op’s regional sales manager, Joe Vitello, the told the Gazette. International markets pose highly complex problems.

Canada, for example, had imposed a 275% tariff on U.S. milk, a problem targeted for correction in the new trade agreement with Canada. An August 2018 study for the U.S. Dairy Export Council found that the newest agreement will even the playing field for farmers who export dairy products. But nationally, that gain may be lost to new Chinese and Mexican tariffs on aluminum and steel in retaliation for recent U.S. actions.

A Market Under Pressure

“American dietary trends effect the market, too,” Vitello said. Milk consumption in the U.S. has declined by 3 percent every year recently. Other beverages, like almond and soy products, have been biting into the dairy market. Current legislation proposes banning the term “milk” in their labelling and marketing. “They are really only nut and vegetable juices,” Jones pointed out.

Schools are increasingly switching from the whole milk favored by students to skim milk, resulting in another of the many decreases in overall consumption.

One of the region’s largest “Big Box” goods and grocery retailers has also targeted the local dairy industry for takeover. The well-known corporation is currently establishing its own mega-farm, factory-dairy operation in Ohio. They have cancelled all their contracts for milk from much of WNY and NWPA. As a result, possibly hundreds of local dairy producers and the co-operatives they belong to will suddenly have nowhere to sell their milk.

Buy by the Numbers

Cornell Coop reports that consumers can tell where their milk comes from by a code number on each carton or jug. It consists of a five- to eight-digit number with a hyphen after the first two digits. A number that begins with 36 indicates the milk was produced in the state of New York. The number 42 designates milk from Pennsylvania and 39 indicates milk from Ohio.

The farm, processor or co-op can be narrowed down, too, with the numbers after the hyphen. It makes a great “teaching moment” for children who shop with their parents and it helps consumers support their local dairies. Go to www.whereismymilkfrom.com/ and simply plug in the number. It is a secret code everyone can use.

What Else We Can Do

Kempisty invites everyone to, “Get to know a farmer. Dairy farmers do a great job of telling their story. They are the ones down in the dirt doing the work for us.”

To read Cornell Co-op’s “Dairy Market Watch,” go to cce.cornell.edu/Chautauqua, click on the Ag tab and select “Publications.”

Walley-Stoll, raised on a dairy farm herself, asks readers, “Next time you are on the road behind the farmer driving his tractor, please be patient because he is working for you.” She also suggests readers buy milk in gallons and take it to a local food bank, a soup kitchen or even an elderly neighbor unable to shop regularly.

The final word offered by Joe Vitello at Upstate Niagara Cooperative is simple. “Milk is good for you. It is fresh, local and healthy. Enjoy some today!”

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.