Hope and family for Sullivan County’s dairy farmers

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 3/16/22

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Dairy farming in Sullivan County isn’t just a family business. It’s a way of life, and has been for generations of family farmers.

“It was a great way …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Hope and family for Sullivan County’s dairy farmers

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Dairy farming in Sullivan County isn’t just a family business. It’s a way of life, and has been for generations of family farmers.

“It was a great way to grow up,” says Rianne Erlwein, a seventh-generation dairy farmer at Myers Century Farm. “We learned early on what it meant to work and have responsibilities.”

Erlwein’s parents both grew up on dairy farms, and while she and her siblings were encouraged to explore the possibilities of life outside the farm during college, all three of them chose to return. Her brothers have jobs outside the farm that give them time to return and help out; Erlwein herself completed her studies to become a registered nurse before returning to the farm full-time.

Tom Bose, a third-generation dairy farmer in Callicoon, tells of a similar focus on the family. Bose works the same farm his grandfather started in 1944 after immigrating from Germany; his daughter has continued in the business at a farm in Pennsylvania.

“It’s been in my heart and soul,” says Bose. “I think there’s no better way of life.”

What other businesses can you run where you can include your children from a young age? he asks.

While families rally around their farms, market forces have made it more and more difficult for succeeding generations to keep dairy farming alive.

Most of the family farms in Sullivan County are on the smaller side, says Bose. Expanding operations would take suitable land and additional hired help; the first is in short supply, and the second involves escalating a farm’s operations beyond what a family can or wants to handle.

Bigger farms elsewhere in the state can take advantage of improvements in farming production through economies of scale that smaller farms don’t possess. Fifty pounds of milk per cow per day was considered a good figure in the ‘70s, says Bose; today, an average large farm can get close to 100, while his herd was averaging 75 the last time he sold milk commercially.

Dairy farms struggle as well with factors that have made milk a less rewarding product. Milk has been removed from school lunches for supposed health reasons, eliminating a pattern of higher milk prices when schools opened up each fall. The rise of milk alternatives such as oat and almond milk has cut into dairy’s market share.

On a more fundamental level, the way milk is priced at the federal level makes it hard for small farms to compete.

Milk prices are regulated at the federal level, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) setting uniform prices across regional geographic areas through federal milk marketing orders. These orders set a monthly uniform price for milk based on the prices of several different end products, including the prices of cheese and butter. The USDA then pools together all of the farmers who contributed milk to that order and averages the value of milk across those different end products, ensuring that all farmers get paid the same amount for their milk regardless of what product their milk went toward creating.

More times than not, the price isn’t sufficient for smaller farms, says Bose; their cost of production is higher than larger farms that benefit from economies of scale. And because milk is a perishable product, farmers can’t store it during times of low prices and wait for a more favorable market.

Data taken from USDA’s Census of Agriculture Historical Archive, a collaborative project between Cornell University and USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Data taken from USDA’s Census of Agriculture Historical Archive, a collaborative project between Cornell University and USDA’s National …

Sullivan County’s dairy industry has collapsed under the pressures small farms have faced. The county had 2,041 farms with milk cows in 1945, according to data from the Census of Agriculture. Only 206 farms were left by 1974, and only 20 by 2017, a decline to around one percent. The number of farms that sold dairy products experienced a similarly steep decline, going from 1,257 in 1945 to 12 in 2017.

The dairy farms Bose used to know supported themselves solely through selling dairy products, he says. Farms at the scale of those in Sullivan County can’t operate that way anymore.

Bose himself last sold milk in 2009; the milk cows his farm has now are raised to be sold to the larger farms up in the Finger Lakes region.

The dairy farmers who survive in Sullivan County are increasingly turning to local markets and independent production to find their success.

Erlwein started down that path after her parents lost their connection to the federal milk markets, she says. While they managed to sign with another company, they saw from the experience that “If I wanted to farm, I had to get creative.” She started her own herd of A2A2 Jersey cows in partnership with Bethel Creamery, a local kosher dairy processing plant, which takes the herd’s milk on weekdays.

Erlwein used to send whatever milk was left over on the weekends with her parents’ stock to federal markets. She ended up buying a small processing plant and ice cream maker, and has begun to sell a range of products through the Myers Century Farm farmstand. (Visit it online at myersscenturyfarm.com/farmstand-pickup).

The prospect of independent production keeps a way of life alive for Sullivan County’s dairy farmers.

“I know I’m meant to be a farmer, says Erlwein. And for her, that doesn’t just mean a lifetime of struggle. “There’s just so much hope.”

Comments

No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here