Many Northeast dairy farmers can’t retire

Sons don’t see future in dairy farming

By TOM KANE

JEFFERSONVILLE, NY - New York State dairyman Willie Hughson should be ready to retire like anybody else who is 65 years old.

As a present-day farmer, however, he can’t, because no one wants to buy his farm and continue farming. His two sons would, if there was a future in it.

“I’d like to, but I’d be taking on a serious obligation that I might not be able to work out with the present state of the dairy business,” said Willie Hughson, Jr., 36.

Selling to a developer who would cut up the land and build a tract of houses is distasteful to Hughson Sr. And the way the real estate market is going today, there are not many developers stepping forward.

Many older dairymen like Hughson expected to use the sale of their farm as their retirement fund, so they never invested in CDs, IRAs or 401(k) accounts. Like many of his contemporaries, all he has is Social Security. In the not too distant past, dairy farming was a going business that brought in a decent living.

Not any more.

Hughson is in the same boat as his fellow small dairy farmers in Pennsylvania and much of the rest of the nation, who are laboring under volatile milk prices on the one hand and the rising cost of production on the other. And there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.

“I couldn’t afford to buy fertilizer last year, so now I have to buy it at nearly twice the cost,” he said.

And what’s worse is that no one seems to know the solution to the problem, not the farmers, not the state, nor the feds, nor the milk processors, nor the milk executives in dairy co-ops.

“The feds could probably solve it, but there would be a lot of angry people in the business end who aren’t farmers,” Hughson said.

New York’s effort falls short

In an effort to help farmers short term, the New York State Legislature passed a subsidy of $30 million to help dairymen pay their 2006 debts.

“That gives me 33 cents per hundred weight of milk,” Hughson said. “When you realize that we average one million pounds of milk in a year, that amounts to $3,300. That wouldn’t pay my feed costs. Nearly 55 percent of my milk check goes to feed. It’s almost an insult. Then, people start thinking, ‘Well, we’ve bailed out our dairy farms again. What else do they want?’ People just don’t understand. And what’s worse, they don’t seem to care.”

Hughson is afraid that this crisis spells the end of the family farm.

“A dairy farmer down the road with young children closed down and moved upstate,” he said. “He still can’t sell his farm. No one wants it. Another young farmer in Callicoon Center just sold his farm and is no longer operating.”

New York State lost nearly 500 dairy farms last year, according to the New York Farm Bureau. In 1987, Sullivan County had 115 dairy farms. Today, there are 36.

“In 10 years, there will be no more small family dairy farms,” said Willie Jr.

The biggest problem that the milk business would then face is the lack of quality controls for the milk.

“Milk would have to come from overseas,” Hughson said. “There would be none of the strict quality controls that we have in America. Foreign milk producers use antibiotics and other things that increase the amount of milk a cow can produce. Look at the contamination of pet food from China. That’s what we would have with foreign milk.”

Price of milk must be market-driven

More and more people in the industry are saying that the price of milk must be dependent on the market and not on subsidies that go back to the days of the Great Depression.

“We’ve got the biggest market of milk in the USA, right here in the Northeast,” Hughson said. “There’s a shortage of milk. If the price of milk goes up, it isn’t the farmer who gets the increase.”

Hughson feels that the dairymen in the area should organize a regional operation like some dairymen did in the Hudson Valley. “They market and sell their milk locally. That makes a lot of sense,” he said.

With all the hardship and pressure on him every day, why does he do it?

“It’s the small farming way of life that makes me do it. It’s my life.

TRR photo by Tom Kane
Dairyman Willie Hughson with his son, Willie Jr., milks 160 cows twice every day. (Click for larger version)