The Death of Farms and Farmers

March 12, 2018

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New York state route 51 cuts through a wedge of rolling farmland bounded by the Catskills to the southeast, the Mohawk river valley to the north, and the Finger Lakes region to the west. Driving out of Burlington Flats towards my farm the land has an understated, patchwork beauty, with forests of maple, ash, and hemlock covering the ridges that rise up to the left. On the right the flats stretch down to the banks of Wharton creek, churned mud and stubble where a combine took in the corn harvest and hay ground as manicured as a fairway, all covered in snow on this March morning. The old timber frame barns that line the road sit in such a state of weathered repose that you can’t appreciate their mass unless you stop the car and go stand next to one. From this vantage you also might notice an absence: no smells of manure or fresh milk, no sounds of mooing or vacuum pumps pulsing, no piebald holsteins making their patient way in from a hill pasture. For most of the past century the agricultural life of central New York revolved around family dairy farms, and now they are nearly extinct.

In 1954, 71,121 New York farms were milking at least one cow. By 2012 (a span of 58 years) that had declined to 5,427. Much of this was consolidation, as the number of farms with more than 500 cows rose from 1 to 246, including 91 with more than 1000. The cows themselves got more efficient too; numerically, the herd declined by two thirds in this period, yet its annual milk output actually increased from 8.5 to over 13 billion pounds. Anecdote agrees with these numbers. My farm and the three contiguous with it, like those up and down the valley, all used to be family dairies. None of them milk any longer.

And now prices are the lowest they’ve been in a decade, with further decreases in the forecast. The reasons for this are the usual push and pull of supply and demand, both domestic and international, and the ever shifting regulations and supports particular to agriculture. Milk is priced as a commodity, but unlike oil or iron it is a commodity that is still produced in part by families on family farms. Unsurprisingly, most are not able to compete in a global marketplace, and for nearly forty years their numbers have been declining.

This is now nearing its endpoint. There simply aren’t that many family dairies left, and those that remain are stressed. When the cost of producing milk exceeds the price paid for it for an extended time, no amount of belt-tightening or deferring critical machinery purchases can close the gap. Feed, fuel, taxes, and living expenses can’t be put off forever. More of the few small farms remaining in New York will go under, while mega-dairies, with their scales of efficiency and even more important limitless credit lines, will continue adding cows and barns.

For a time organic certification was something of a palliative, offering a generous margin over the conventional gate price. But with the rise of industrial dairies that have figured out how to abide by the letter of the law, or just change it where they could not, this margin is shrinking, and small organic producers are being squeezed just as hard as their conventional counterparts.

Even grass-fed, the newest and most idealistic entrant to the market, is in real danger. In a recent issue of Graze my friend Paul Van Amburgh of Dharma Lea farm laid out the case starkly. The current cost of production for 100% grass-fed is about $45 dollars per hundredweight on average without accounting for family living expenses or loan payments, while the price paid is closer to $30. For comparison, conventional milk is currently getting $16 per hundredweight, which is the cost of purchased feed alone on some grass-fed dairies.

The consolidation and commodification of the dairy industry at all levels has made it more efficient, uniform, mechanized, and unskilled, and the result has been marginally lower prices on milk and cheese; from a free market viewpoint the current system is working. But from a more holistic perspective, accounting for the land, the larger community, and the farmers themselves, the true price of these changes becomes clear.

The loss of family dairies from New York is in some ways analogous to the hollowing out of an industry town when the local factories close, but it is slower and more diffuse. Some farms go bankrupt, but many simply cease operating when the last farmer retires. Young people have left to seek out more promising livelihoods. The cows go to auction. The flattest land is aggregated into the holdings of ever larger farms. Hill pasture becomes scrub and then young forest. Local businesses decline and close.

Thirty family farms, each with 100 milking cows, give a place a fundamentally different character than one 3000 cow dairy with thirty employees, and not just because of the scale or the wages. Industrial agriculture severs the connection between farmers and the land. I have recently been writing about the darker aspects of agrarianism, but this, its central argument, remains true in my view; a healthy relationship between people, place, and food is fundamental to the health of both the agricultural community and the larger community it serves.

For this reason farming should be a vocation. It has an impact on the health of the ecosystem, and not just by producing food. Planting trees, deepening soil, keeping water clean often don’t lead to profit, at least not in the short term, but they all promote a broader human flourishing, and farmers should be attentive to these responsibilities. But for that to even be a possibility farming must also be a robustly viable business. Assessing agriculture purely in terms of maximum production at the lowest possible price leads to the short-sighted, degrading practices that are now predominant.

The sad truth is that most farmers, regardless of the particular practices they use, do view themselves as servants of a larger good, and when this identity and livelihood are threatened the consequences are devastating. In America farming has a higher rate of suicide than any other occupation. There are doubtless many complicated and intersecting reasons for this, but I believe the root of the issue is the strength of the connection between farmers and their land, and the pain that results when that connection breaks.

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