Finding a Path Forward for New York's Dairy Farms

Samantha Levy

Faced with years of low milk prices, dairy farm families across New York and the country are struggling. 

This was strongly evident at the August Dairy Summit convened by Agri-Mark in Albany, NY where hundreds of dairy farmers, cooperative owners, economists, lawyers, government officials, and advocates came from all over the country (and Canada) to talk about what to do about it.

The problem lies in the simple fact that for over the past three years the price of milk has been much lower than what it costs to make it. Most dairy farmers are price takers, not price makers - meaning they don’t control the price they get when they sell their milk.

In extreme cases—dairy processors in New York and across the country are cancelling contracts with farmers leaving them with no market to sell their milk, and no other option than to sell their cows and their farm.

While farmers across the state are facing a combination of hardships from severe weather to tariffs, recently covered in the New York Times, dairy farms are especially vulnerable to being lost.

This is a big deal.

Dairy farms are the foundation of the state’s farm economy representing 50% of on-farm sales while managing millions of acres of land. They also help sustain strong rural economies, supporting farm equipment dealers, veterinarians and other service providers who also help New York fruit producers, vegetable growers, livestock farmers, and other types of farms with needed services.

This economic distress for dairy farmers is further complicated in New York as 30% of our farmers are at retirement age, and the future of nearly 2 million acres of land is at stake as this land transitions to the next generation. 

It is critical that we address the economic viability of dairy farming and intergenerational transition needs for all farmers if we are going to continue to grow food in New York.

The question is: in a country disconnected from where our food comes from—how do we fix it?

In June, the Governor announced that the State of New York will invest $30 million to help dairy farmers transition their farm to the next generation, diversify their operation, or transition to a new crop while protecting their farmland.

This is a clear step in the right direction—it will help dozens of dairy farm families across New York, especially those nearing retirement, make greatly needed investments in the long-term financial viability of their farm while keeping their farmland available for agriculture forever.

But to support the dairy industry more broadly, bigger changes are needed. As discussed in the meeting, the slowest, most difficult, and most needed change would be a congressional overhaul of the current financial safety net for dairy farmers when prices get too low. Other options discussed include:

  • Getting the USDA to adjust the current Margin-Protection Program,
  • Asking the state to take action to support our dairy industry,
  • Assembling farmers and coops to take collective action, or
  • Having individual coops more effectively manage for oversupply.

Proposals presented at the meeting can be reviewed and commented on at www.dairyproposals2018.com.

A big theme at this meeting was unity—no matter what action is taken, we all must take it together, and we must do it now. Kara O’Connor from the Wisconsin Farmers Union put it best, “it is possible to have a dairy economy that aligns better with our values than the one we have now.”

I encourage you to read and comment on the proposals —the next great idea for how to fix this broken system, shaped by your comments and questions, could come out of this process!