“You Can’t Sell Out”: Upstate Dairy Farmers Deal With Volatile Milk Prices

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WHITNEY POINT (WSKG) — About 15 dairy farmers talked with Southern Tier Congresswoman Claudia Tenney at a farm in Whitney Point for two hours Thursday afternoon about changes they want to see in the industry to start turning a profit again.

Monica Sandreczki / WSKG Public Media

Cub Frisbie heads up the Tioga County Farm Bureau. He used to be a dairy farmer, but sold his cows a few years ago to grow corn and soybeans instead.

“Ugly. It’s ugly right now,” said Cub Frisbie, head of the Tioga County Farm Bureau.

Frisbie used to be a dairy farmer, but switched to corn and soybeans before the market turned south. The amount dairy farmers get for milk is the lowest it’s been in a decade. These days, many dairy farmers are operating at a loss and “eating up equity left and right.”

“You can’t sell out,” said Frisbie. “The people you’re going to sell to are other dairy farmers. They don’t have money to give you what the value of your machinery or your cattle are worth.”

That federal cost of milk is volatile, he said, no one knows what it will be in a year, let alone month to month. Right now it’s about $14.44 per hundred pounds of milk. Back in 2014, it hit $27, then dropped to about $18 in a matter of months.

“Try to budget? It’s impossible.”

“And lenders are nervous – if this cycle continues – they don’t want to loan more money, knowing that farmer’s, not from a poor operation, but because of the dairy industry, they’re just not going to make any money. Their repayment capacity is lower.”

Monica Sandreczki / WSKG Public Media

Jeff Doty leans against the porch rail at Whittaker Farms in Whitney Point, NY. He runs a 70 cow dairy farm in Willet.

Some folks have told Frisbie dairy farmers should just get out of the industry.

That’s a non-starter for Jeff Doty. It’s part of his family identity. His grandfather and father were dairy farmers. Doty has a one-year old daughter and hopes she and his future children would carry it on.

As for possible solutions, most agreed, the best thing to do to support dairy farmers is to buy whole milk because farmers earn more money than they do for skim milk or cheeses or powdered milk. Because of that, they say a big help would be for New York schools to offer whole milk in the cafeteria.

Plus, advertising: milk commercials like “Got Milk” have “dried up,” Doty said. He thinks billboards and ads would help boost demand, which has been decreasing.

Another possibility is a supply management system for pricing milk like Canada’s, but, it’s a completely different system and some dairy farmers say that’s hard to swallow for Americans who like competitive markets.

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