Editorial: Dairy farming a tough job

The Recorder. July 17, 2014. By The Recorder Editorial Board.

Dairy farming in the Northeast has never been a get-rich-quick proposition.

While plenty of parents — especially those with teenage boys — may say that milk is a staple in their homes, it turns out that milk consumption in the United States has been dropping.

Milk’s rate of decline in 2011 and 2012 was the highest in more than a decade, according to federal data. Taking an even longer snapshot, the per capita consumption declined 25 percent from 1975 through 2012.

Competition from other drinks, be it soy or coconut milk or juices and waters that are fortified with calcium are one of the explanations offered. And who knows how many consumers look for alternatives based upon increasing milk prices? A gallon of fortified whole milk cost $3.69 in April 2014, a 7.5 percent increase from a year earlier and the highest price since September 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, there are other forces at work on milk economics. For example, the U.S. has tapped into the world market, one that includes China, other parts of Asia and elsewhere. U.S. exporters shipped 60,358 tons of nonfat dry milk/skim milk powder in May, up 8 percent from last year and, as it turns out, the most ever in a single month.

Finding new markets should lead to good economic news and this year’s forecast for dairy farmers is certainly indicative. While predictions call for increase in dairy farming income, it must be remembered that farmers only see a fraction of the price of what people see on the grocery shelves.

You would like to think that dairy farmers, no matter where they may be located, would stand united. But as the public is aware, that isn’t necessarily the case. The Northeast dairy farms have long been in competition with farming concerns in the Midwest, the South and even as far away as California. Then, too, there are issues with marketing, distribution, etc., that have a negative impact on farmers.

But dairy farmers in the Northeast got a bit of good news recently. A class action lawsuit filed in 2009 on behalf of farmers in our region against the Dairy Farmers of America and its marketing arm, Dairy Marketing Services, has been settled. The two have agreed to pay a total of $50 million — while admitting no wrong-doing — in the case that alleged that they, along with Dean Foods, a dairy processor, conspired to drive down raw milk prices in the Northeast. Dean Foods, which also admits to no wrong-doing, agreed in 2011 to pay $30 million to between 9,000 and 10,000 individual farmers in 11 states and the District of Columbia. According to the plaintiff’s attorney, this amounted to an estimated average payment to farmers of between $2,500 and $5,700.

That’s not exactly money this is going to propel Northeast dairy farmers into retirement, but perhaps the decision levels the, uh, pasture a bit.