The real conversation the dairy industry needs to have
"We are in this together." I constantly hear this statement, but I feel this is far from the truth. Large dairy versus small dairy conversations are trying to be had but are silenced, to the point of hearing, "Well maybe they would look closer at their balance sheet if they had more cows."
This past summer, I showed up at several events giving voice to farmers and farm families who feel silenced. I have showed up at a rural mental health forum, a dairy consumer conference and as a panelist sharing about food and farming. I show up to validate the effect the current industry is having on our rural communities, the stress on our rural families, the heartache on marriages and the loneliness it brings when there is no one to understand. The devastating effect low milk prices has not just been on farmers but everyone farmers do business with.
At one of these events, one of the questions was, what do we think is the biggest challenge with the consumer understanding dairy? At my table, I stated there is conflict among dairy farmers. Dairy farmers are hurt from seeing countless auction bills come in the mail for small dairies. And those don't include all the others that go for cull. I stated how many farms my county alone had lost in a short time.
Dairy farmers are sick of the questions they are asking themselves with no answers: What do we do? Market cow prices are less than what we have on our balance sheet. We are maxed out on all of our lending. What do we do? Even if we sell, we will still owe more than we can make even with an off-farm job. These questions lead to a never-ending world of anxiety, worry and sleepless nights for farmers. Talks of companies demanding semi-loads per pick up adds fuel to a fire of uncertainty.
Herds continue to grow and not at a slow pace. The industry brags year after year about record-breaking production of milk in dairy cows. We are constantly told the reason for low prices is the market is flooded. Increasing cow numbers increases milk supply on an already flooded market. I said to the table, "There are many farmers who feel small farms do not need large farms but large farms need small farms." I stood my ground, wanting to have a real conversation beyond, "We are in this together." I stated how Nathan and I have been told to our face: "You are dumb for milking in a tie stall barn. Just add more cows. Milk a third milking. Just write the check. You are dumb for only milking 80 cows."
I then bluntly asked the sizes of their dairies. One was 1,700 milking cows another was 700. One farmer at the table asked me, "Who is your biggest competition?" I really didn't understand the question. The dairy farmer then began to tell me how his biggest competition is the farm next to him. The farmer then continued to tell me how he himself is one the biggest in their area and one of very few farms left. His words haunt me.
The only way we are going to see change in our hurting industry is to be able to have real conversations. Real conversations about what your balance sheet really looks like. Real conversations about what your struggles are on your farm and how the current struggles are affecting your family.
Adding cows is hurting everyone. Adding milk to an already flooded market helps no one. We need to start being real with each other. We need to keep the farms we have if we really are in this together.