Dairy Farmers Struggle Through Falling Prices
Local dairy farmers are feeling the effects of falling dairy prices particularly hard this winter.
“Farmers always have good years and bad years,” said Ted Hoyt of Hoyt Hill Farms in Tunbridge. “But lately, it seems that all we’re getting is bad year after bad year.”
Beth Kennett of Liberty Hill Farms in Rochester shared a similar sentiment.
“With the increase of production costs and significantly lower milk prices, this is the worst year we’ve seen in our 40 years of farming in the White River Valley,” Kennett said.
According to an announcement by the USDA, prices have fallen over $3 since 2017. In January 2017 milk from conventional dairy farms was priced at $17.45 per hundredweight and now is worth only $14.25.
Kennett was one of many farmers to receive a letter recently which provided a suicide hotline number, as well as several other mental health resources for struggling farmers.
The letter was sent out by Agri-Mark, a farmers’ cooperative that covers New England and New York. “It was a shocking letter to receive,” said Kennett. “But, if it helps even one person or one family, then it’s worth it.”
Hoyt is not a member of Agri-Mark, but admitted that he too believes that this winter is one of the hardest seasons farmers have had to endure.
“Farmers are good at surviving,” he said. “We take what we can get, and we work with it. [In] good years, we save for the bad years— but that’s hard when we don’t have a good year very often.”
Even though the winter is hard, both Kennett and Hoyt have hope that things will improve.
Not Going It Alone
“Farmers are incredibly resilient,” Kennett agreed. “The consistently falling milk prices have revealed the fragility of the market, but farmers are optimists. We always believe the grass will grow and next year will be a better year.”
“We never know what’s going to happen as far as prices go,” Hoyt noted.
The prices, which are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have, according to Kennett, gotten so low that they’re beginning to affect bigger farms, as well as the smallest family farms.
Kennett observed that many people aren’t aware of the difficulties that dairy farmers are facing.
“An abundance of milk is still available in the U.S.,” she said. “Consumers walk into the store and find milk products available, so they have no idea anything is wrong.”
But, since the beginning of February, when the letter from Agri-Mark went out, Kennett has noticed an increasing awareness in the community.
“None of us are in this alone,” said Kennett. “If anything has proved that, it’s the response to this letter.”
Kennett said that the letter has been a blessing in disguise, opening a dialogue about mental health in a way she’s never experienced before.
“These things are hard to talk about,” she said. “But it’s important to get them out in the open, and to know that you’re still a valued member of the community, even if things are hard for you on a personal level.”
Hoyt, too, feels support from the people around him.
“People know me,” said Hoyt. “The farm has been in the family for generations, so as long as I keep doing good work, several landowners nearby allow me to farm their land, and in some places, I don’t even have to pay rent.”
Hoyt said that this type of generosity helps allow him to continue farming in an economy that increasingly supports large factory farms.
“The big farms just keep growing,” said Hoyt. “And they can afford to grow. It’s hard for me to add even a few more cows, but they can add a hundred cows and continue to see improving profits.”
He said that even though big agricultural corporations have an advantage, he doesn’t imagine Hoyt Hill Farm will be closing any time soon.
“When I retire, we’ll pass it down to my son and his wife,” said Hoyt.
Even though Kennett and Hoyt are both determined to persevere, there has been a significant decrease in the number of farms in Vermont over the last decade (see sidebar).
Both Kennett and Hoyt agree that the best thing concerned community members can do is to buy local dairy, and lots of it.
“Drink your milk, eat your yogurt, get your cheese on!” said Kennett.
Farm Stats Tell the Story
Statistics provided to The Herald by the Vermont Department of Agriculture paint a sobering picture of the state of the dairy industry in Vermont during the last decade.
In the 10 years from 2007 to 2017:
• The number of cow dairy farms in has decreased each year from 1,118 farms in 2007 to 796 in 2017;
• The average number of cows has decreased slowly but steadily from 140,000 in 2007 to 128,660 in 2017. That year was the first to fall under 130,000 cows.
• The average number of cows per farm has increased, showing a trend to fewer but larger farms. The average number of cows on a farm was 125 in 2007 and has increased steadily to 162 cows per farm in 2017.
• In a trend related to larger farms, the number of on-farm dairy processors has doubled from 34 in 2007 to 68 in 2017.