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Small farmers fear future of dairy industry

Even on the longest days of the year, Amy Hoefele is already up and working when the sun rises over her Fonda farm.

There’s a 6 a.m. milking. Then, her husband handles the farm, while she works a full-time sales job in her home office until 5 p.m. Then, she’s back out to the barn until 8 p.m.

That’s a 15-hour day and every day of hard work, the farm is losing money.

When the milk check comes in, it doesn’t even cover the cost to produce the milk.

“There’s things we’d like to do, repairs, new buildings. All that gets put off in times like this and we just focus on taking care of our girls,” explained Hoefele.

Taking care of the 75 girls is Hoefele’s dream job. She just bought this farm two years ago, but already regrets it some days.

The Hoefele’s say they couldn’t sell the farm even if they wanted to. It wouldn’t be enough to cover the debt and nobody’s buying dairy right now, anyway. There are farmers who have sold all their cows and some of their equipment and they’re still in the hole.

“So this is our main milk cow barn, used to be filled with 250 cows,” pointed out Doug LaGrange, as he showed NewsChannel 13 the barn.

Those cows are gone now. They were sold last summer.

It’s eerie to see the empty stalls and motionless fans, the bushes growing up over all those awards they won for the quality of their milk. The roots of farming run so far back, there’s a blue historical marker out front.

“I sit down with the $25,000 milk check and I have $38,000 worth of bills every two weeks. It just doesn’t work,” he noted.

LaGrange can’t control what he’s paid for his milk.

The federal government sets the price using a complicated formula. It isn’t connected to what you pay in stores for a gallon.

For consumers, a gallon of milk costs about the same as it did in 2003. In 2014, farmer’s prices hit a high, but they dropped about 30 percent in 2015 and stayed there.

Farmers are getting out. There are 20 percent fewer dairy farms today in New York than even 10 years ago, but about the same number of cows.

The 4,400 farms left are producing more milk. The state says the average cow today produces more than double the amount she was producing in 1970.

State AG commissioner Richard Ball says that’s the problem — too much milk. Dairy exports are down three to four percent. With tariff talk ramping up, Ball is worried about an even bigger hit.

He says the exodus of farmers doesn’t have to continue, but he says dairy farmers need to look in the mirror.

“Who’s our customer, what do they want and are we meeting their needs? I think this is where the dairy industry in particular has kind of gotten separated. We’ve been so good at what we do in production, that we don’t think about the consumer or what they want,” he explained.

WEB EXTRA: Full interview with State AG Commissioner Richard Ball

Still, the state is trying to get New Yorkers to buy more dairy through marketing and school programs. In the past two years, the state has put $50 million into plants making dairy products with a longer shelf life, like cheese and butter.

Ball says he’s optimistic about the long term.

“Today, I’m more excited than I’ve ever been about the future of agriculture,” he explained.

Back on the empty farm, LaGrange isn’t as excited.

“This is getting bad,” he pointed out.

He says there’s no bringing farmland back from asphalt.

“We need the local farmer, not only for the product, but for the local economy. That whole picture has to be understood and I’m worried that it’s getting too late.”

LaGrange has a desk job now. He’s the town supervisor. His old herd is spread out among fewer — likely much bigger farms.

The Hoefeles are still hanging on in one of the few places where the cows are known by names and not just numbers.

Earlier this week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand proposed an amendment to the farm bill, authorizing $300 million in emergency relief for dairy farmers. She says similar funding was made available to cotton farmers in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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