Amish dairy farmers who lost their milk buyer the first day of the new year have been given another chance to maintain the livelihood they’ve held for generations.
Meanwhile, some non-Amish farmers facing a similar predicament also appear to have landed on their feet in one of the worst dairy industry downturns in recent history.
One of them, Robert Pierce of Darlington, is hopeful that he won’t have to dump his milk on the ground now that a local cooperative has agreed to step in and become his buyer in the next few days.
The last five weeks have been stressful, Pierce said, since he learned that his previous milk buyer, Wisconsin Cheese Group, was dropping him effective Jan. 1.
He made a flurry of calls to cheese plants and cooperatives, only to be turned down by all but one in a marketplace awash in milk and cheese.
“It’s stressful when nobody calls you back or everybody keeps saying the same thing,” Pierce said.
It was also rough on Amish farms in his area, including some who milk their small dairy herds by hand.
About 10 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, primarily Amish, still ship milk to plants in large metal cans — the way it was done by other farmers decades ago.
But when Wisconsin Cheese Group signed a marketing agreement with Rolling Hills Dairy Producers Cooperative as a milk supplier, it shut out the Amish, a religious sect known for living simply, wearing plain clothing and shunning modern technology.
“Unfortunately, the Cooperative does not accept Grade B or Amish dairy farm milk into their milk supply,” Wisconsin Cheese Group said in a Nov. 28 letter to Amish farmers and Grade B milk producers.
Most milk is classified as Grade A, meaning it can be used as a beverage and for butter, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products. Grade B milk, not held to the same standards, can be used only for manufactured dairy products such as cheese.
The Amish dairy farmers dropped by Wisconsin Cheese Group could not be reached for comment. But about a dozen of them, and six other Amish dairy farms, have formed a cooperative to sell their Grade B milk to Wisconsin Whey Protein in Darlington.
For now, at least, they will be able to continue milking cows on small farms that collectively have some marketing muscle.
“It seems like it’s working out OK,” Wisconsin Whey Protein plant manager Walter Weber said.
Meanwhile, Pierce is making changes to his small dairy operation that will allow his milk to be classified as Grade A and be accepted by a local cooperative with whom he’s reached a deal.
“I’m just waiting for a state inspection,” he said.
Pierce said the Amish would not accept non-Amish farmers into their cooperative even if they lived in the same area and were in the same predicament of having been dropped by Wisconsin Cheese Group.
“It was understandable,” he said, because the cooperative is a new business venture that can only handle so many farms in a marketplace where there’s a great deal of uncertainty.
Norm Monsen with the Wisconsin Farm Center, part of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said he’s been monitoring the farmers’ predicament since Wisconsin Cheese Group made its announcement.
“We’ve been hopeful, just listening to the wind, that everybody was going to find a home for their milk,” he said.
Farmers across the nation are now in their fifth straight year of frequently depressed milk prices, a downturn that resulted in about 700 Wisconsin dairy farms going out of business in 2018, an unprecedented rate of nearly two farms a day.
“There are a lot of tough decisions being made now by farmers, lenders and suppliers,” said Peter Hardin, publisher of The Milkweed, a dairy industry publication in Brooklyn, Wisconsin.
Many farmers are shipping their dairy cattle to slaughter as beef.
One livestock hauler told Hardin he’d recently had his busiest two weeks in 30 years.
The number of farms dumping cattle just to pay bills is shocking, Hardin said.
A national glut of cheese is to blame for at least part of the downturn.
Last summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said there was almost 1.4 billion pounds of surplus cheese stored in refrigerated warehouses around the country even as dairy production hadn’t slowed.
“If formed into one giant wheel, the current 1.39-billion-pound cheese surplus would be about as big as the U.S. Capitol Building,” Investors Business Daily wrote in July.
Early last year, a cheese plant reopened in Sheboygan County, tossing a lifeline to four dairy farms that were about to lose their milk buyer for the second time in two years.
Now it seems that plant, in Adell, has stopped production.
The owners did not return a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel call asking what had happened. But the plant hasn’t made cheese in about two weeks, according to state officials who say they’re working with the owners to ensure that farmers get paid for their milk.
“It’s a complicated dairy market now,” Monsen said.
The federal farm bill, legislation recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, supposedly fixes a dairy safety net program that didn’t work for many small farms.
But for many farms, it could be too little, too late.
“This pain is exacerbated by the administration’s mishandling of international trade and biofuel policies, which are further depressing farm prices,” the National Farmers Union said in a statement.
Pierce, a third-generation dairy farmer, has managed to hang on by keeping his operating costs and debts low. He’s milking only 20 cows now, but combined with some other things it’s enough for a modest living.
“We’ve kept it simple … old equipment, and we do most of our own repairs,” he said. “The cost of living may be higher now, but we can still make money the way it was done in the 1960s and ’70s.”
Still, two years ago he could sell a calf for $200. Now he’s lucky to get $25.
“A heifer that sold for $600 now sells for about $200 or $300,” Pierce said.
Even with reduced income, and the uncertainty he faced after losing his milk buyer, he’s still passionate about farming.
“Is it worth it? Hell yes,” Pierce said. “What else would I do for stress relief, if it wasn’t for milking cows.”