Long before coronavirus upended everyone’s lives, Pennsylvania dairy farmer Brenda Cochran had been living in near-perpetual crisis. Five years of low milk prices have had the farm operating in the red, the family avoiding calls from creditors, and sometimes struggling to buy groceries. “There has never been a period of worse financial losses and … hopelessness than the past six years,” she said.
The U.S. has been losing dairy farms like the Cochran’s at a rate of nearly nine per day since 2015. Milk prices were expected to rise in 2020 for the first time since then, but the forecasts made a u-turn two weeks ago as the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic began to upend the dairy supply chain. Now, dairy prices are in freefall. Even as grocery stores struggle to keep dairy cases stocked, farmers across the country have begun dumping milk that their processors have no room for. “There’s no one who can sustain this,” said Cochran. “It’s over.”
With dairy farmers’ reserves tapped out, the year that was supposed to be a catch-up is turning into a disaster.
One of the many things I’ve learned on this trip — as I suppose reporters have been learning for years — is that people like to talk about themselves and show off their lives. For me, this has meant that as someone is showing me around their farm, they’ll say, “So, you ever seen how one of these works?,” “You even been in a combine?,” “You just gonna watch or you gonna actually milk cows?”
The right answer, obviously, is “No, show me!” And so I’ve milked cows, sat up in a combine (it was parked, but still impressive), finally understood how a silage feeder works, checked out inside grain bins, stood in the middle of beef calves coming in to feed… (And had more bad drinks than I care to admit at the Golden Ox bar at the former Kansas City Livestock Exchange, but I suppose that’s another story…) Most of the most memorable and educational experiences of this great journey have been because my host is showing off a little. I love it.
Today I got back to Jim and Rebecca’s magical farm (not its real name) just before chores. I’ve stayed here twice in the last month, and have been so looking forward to coming back at the end of my trip. Jim’s original email inviting me to stay enticed me with: “We have … plenty of quiet places, nice cows, good food and a patio behind the house that is a great place for an evening gin & tonic or a beer,” and it’s been just like that and more.
I drove past the barn while they were moving the cows in for milking; I parked at the house and walked back down the road, where Jim and Rebecca were loading their two freezers in the van for the Madison farmers’ market tomorrow. When they were done, I went with Rebecca to move the pasture fence, as I did two weeks ago.
“You ever driven an ATV?” she asked, as we walked towards the barn. Somehow I hadn’t, despite growing up in a farming community. Always too timid as a kid, maybe; not like my adventurous reporter self these days… She showed me how to turn it on and back it out of the barn, and said I was a natural as we drove through the pasture to the fence. Even after putting nearly 3,000 miles on my rented Corolla this month, bumping over clover, burdock, and cow pies at 15mph in the open air was exhilarating.
We moved the fence — if I were a cow, I’d be pretty excited about the new patch of pasture we opened up, full of flowers and tall grasses — and I drove us back to the barn. Where Jim’s regular milking help was away, and so he seemed glad to have me help prep cows for milking: dip the teats in iodine solution, milk each a few times into a discard cup, clean and dry them off for attaching the milker. The milking equipment in his barn is a little too big for me, so the prep work is easier.
After so many hours in dairy barns and around cows, even more hours talking and thinking about dairy farms, and trying my hand at milking several times, tonight I finally felt comfortable with it. Not good or fast, but comfortable with the animals, as huge as they are; with stepping confidently between two cows (they’re really very big); with kneeling on one knee and leaning my head into them while cleaning them as the farmers all do; with paying attention to their hind legs but not skittishly avoiding them; with shaking it off when their tails hit me in the face (Jim finally taught me a couple of tricks for moving tails out of the way)…
Several farmers I’ve spoken with have talked about how much they love milking. They talk about it as meditative, as a time to reflect on the day and think about what needs to be done tomorrow. I don’t want to be a dairy farmer, but I’ve been lucky enough to glimpse the peace of milking time. Tonight, the milk lines clicked, the cows rustled in their stanchions, and the fan at the open end of the barn hummed, as the cats milled around in the early evening beam of angled sunlight. The barn is clean and smells of milk, grain, hay, cows, manure, and pasture.
Dairy farming is hard work, but if you can figure out how to do it right (and I’ll be writing more about how much harder it’s getting…), it looks to be a pretty exceptional life. I’m grateful to have been shown just a little taste.
Incredibly, Real Milk Stories met its original goal less than two weeks into the month-long campaign! I’m thrilled, floored, and incredibly grateful. And based on the outpouring of support and enthusiasm, I’ve set a stretch goal — let’s see if we can get to $5000!
I absolutely didn’t expect this level of response. I started the campaign to cover basic costs of reporting my friend Joel’s story of selling his cows and the ongoing dairy crisis in Wisconsin. What I’ve learned is that really a lot of people want to dig into the dairy crisis—or, want me to dig into it and report on what I find. Hundreds of people have shared the campaign and the page has been viewed a thousand times, from around the world. Along with my raising my seed funding, I feel like I’ve been given a mandate. Not only from my farmer friends, but from all of you who drink milk and eat ice cream and want to know more about where it’s coming from.
My original goal didn’t cover follow-up research and travel (including closer to home to upstate New York or Pennsylvania), transcription, in-depth writing, or any number of other expenses. All additional funds I raise will allow me to do the follow up and additional reporting that’s needed to tell more Real Milk Stories.
Thanks especially to donors Theresa Pascoe, Brian Hornby, Alyssa Adkins, Michele Simon, Cristina Sandolo, Jon Klar, Alison Cohen, Kristin Reynolds, Liz Joyce, Maggie Cheney, David Knutson, Anim Steel, Nancy Heiberg, Robert Mitchell, Mark Winne, Michael Paone, Haven Bourque, Chris Jacobs, Kathy Ozer, Ruth Katz, Stevie Schafenacker, David Hanson, and Karen Pittelman.
The response to Real Milk Stories has been beyond anything I could’ve hoped for: HALFWAY to the goal in FIVE DAYS, and today, one week in, under $800 to go!! And the flood of excited, supportive comments I’ve gotten about the project makes it clear that it fills a niche and a need more than I even imagined. It’s been an exceptional week.
THANK YOU to everyone who’s been of it — for great feedback, many shares on social media, and contributions. I asked for community supported, and I’ve gotten it in spades. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it all.
Extra special thanks to contributors Bonnie Wodin, Raj Patel, Anney Barrett, Brad Wilson, Emily Nichols, Kat Kollitides, Kerstin Sabene, Abby Elbow, Luther Picket, Jon Kennett, Margaret & Triphon Kollitides, Cynthia Price, Lisa Griffith, Koren Manning, Robert Perry, Kristin Schwab, Michael Yates Crowley, Brooke Ellen Smith, Niaz Dorry, Raj Kattamasu, Sheri Stein, David Vigil, Gene Bishop & Andy Stone, Carol Sartz & Art Schwenger, and four anonymous contributors. You are all fantastic.
I’ve been reading a lot on dairy policy these days. So I was nerdily thrilled while on my way out last night to get this spreadsheet of dairy farm numbers since 1965 from my friend Tim at the great Missouri Rural Crisis Center. It came with upsetting news, though: updated number of farm closures. 47,000 dairy farms shuttered since 2000.
Brooklyn-grown strawberries! In my community garden plot.
And this. 28% in three days! I’m thrilled, humbled, touched — by the excitement for Real Milk Stories, by the support, by all the shares… What a ride, and it’s just the beginning!
Extra special thanks to Christina Schiavoni, Jerusha Klemperer, Sarah Wodin-Schwartz, Sarah Mitchell and Ron Koomas, Debbie Grunbaum, Aaron Reser, Jonah Burke, Diana Manning, Jan Poppendieck, Christina Bronsing-Lazalde, Doron Comerchero, Sarah Bishop-Stone, Kathy Dickeman, Molly Culver, George Naylor, Tanya Kerssen, Diana Beck, Tim Gibbons, and five anonymous contributors for your incredible support.
I wrote in my last post about hearing farmers’ stories from dairy country in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Today I’ve launched Real Milk Stories, a campaign to support me to travel to Wisconsin this summer to research some of those stories and write about them for a wide audience.
My friend Joel, president of Family Farm Defenders, recently sold his cows and took a job at a fruit processing plant. I’ll be spending time with him and neighboring farmers, investigating the pressures that have made so many thousands of farmers sell their cows after generations of farming. My writing will shed light on what farm and trade policy looks like at the human level, in the fields and around the kitchen table – and why it’s important to all of us who live far from the farm.
Like community supported agriculture, Real Milk Stories is community supported storytelling. My campaign will raise seed funding from friends, family, colleagues, readers for my weeks in Wisconsin for research and interviews, so that I can help these farmers tell their critical and too often untold stories.
I was on a call last week with the board and allies of Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, a twenty-year-old progressive dairy farmer group. More than half the participants were dairy farmers, or used to be. It was a regular monthly board call to talk about business items, but conversation turned quickly to farmers’ stories. The reality of the ongoing dairy crisis — more of a hemorrhage by now; I’m not sure “crisis” is still appropriate after 25 years — is devastating. The stories, each one different and each one the same, lose none of their impact after hearing so many of them over five years of working with independent farmers — on the contrary, every year feels worse: “How is this still happening??” We know all about the “dairy crisis” by now: the numbers are there, we know that 42,500 dairy farms have closed in the last decade and that rural America is crumbling; there have been two farm bills in that time — and a noble but entirely failed investigation into consolidation in the food and ag industry, stymied by meat packers and dairy processors — and yet nothing has changed to improve the situation of the small and midsize dairy farmer.
And in dairy country across the US, those farmers are struggling every day.
On the call, a farmer in Pennsylvania told us that her family sold their cows after 47 years of dairy farming. “We got tired of throwing our money down a big dark hole,” she said. The family is now planting corn; there is usually a good market for grain from her Amish neighbors, buying for their livestock. This year, though, she’s concerned that so many of them are getting out of dairy too that she’ll have no market for her new crop. “It’s like a rural slum in some areas,” she said.
A Pennsylvania neighbor of hers was on the call too; she’s still holding on, barely. Milk prices for farmers have gone up, but the gains are eroded by high grain costs. Her last milk check was nearly a third less than her cost of production. Milk prices are slowly creeping higher, she said, but, she said, “We have so many dark holes dug by years of insolvency that it will take a long time to get out.” Our communities,” she added, “are broken.”
My friend Joel is the president of Family Farm Defenders and facilitated the call. He didn’t share that night, but we know his story: his family has been farming in his southwest Wisconsin county for 140 years; last fall, he sold his cows and got a job in a cranberry processing plant. “You shouldn’t lock a farmer in a concrete box all day,” he told me the first time we talked about the job. After spending most of his life on his fields and in his barn, with nothing but the sound of cows and the clicking of milk lines, he said the noise of the frozen cranberries pouring through the metal tubes is deafening.
The reasons behind the dairy catastrophe are many — and at first glance, a partial list is wonkish and something of a snooze: a complicated system of pricing and governmental price supports; consolidation in the industry; corporate-like coops that act more like corporations; lack of Justice Department action to enforce fairness in the market, and more. (I have come to terms with the sad reality that most people don’t get as jazzed about antitrust enforcement as I do…)
But for as arcane as the causes are, farmers’ stories of the impacts are that much more compelling. In the next few months, I aim to introduce some of these farmers here — and break down just why, at a time when so many people around the country want to get to know their farmer, dairy farmers are only barely surviving.