Is Dairy Dying?

A new season for Talk Farm to Me | Season 3, Episode 1

This is Talk Farm to Me's first Deep Dive Series that addresses multiple angles on one issue.

When I was a girl, milk was a staple. It was on the dinner table and it was my go-to as a refresher after a long soccer practice. As a matter of fact, "Drink your milk." was a constant refrain of my childhood. Not any more. My kids were not big into milk after their baby years. Now I put milk in my coffee. That's it.


What does this mean? Do you think about milk at all? What about other dairy? When you grab some milk in the supermarket, do you think about everything that went into getting that milk there? Well, now's your chance. The details of the dairy industry are super interesting. And it's really much more complicated than I ever could have imagined. And quite frankly, where the dairy industry is having troubles is where other issues pop up too. Everything is connected.


In this first episode in the Deep Dive series on dairy, you get a Dairy 101 of sorts. What you learn here -- from a New York state dairy farmer and from a dairy policy expert -- will set you up to dive in to more complicated topics coming soon. Stay tuned for Episode 2 in a few weeks. At the end of this series, you will be able to decide for yourself the answer to "Is Dairy Dying?"


GUESTS

Our guests on this episode of Season 3 -- a Deep Dive on Dairy include:

1) Dairy farmer Rich Dirie of Dirie's Dairy Farm in Livingston Manor, NY and

2) Mark Stephenson, the Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.


I am very grateful to both Rich and Mark for sharing their ideas, expertise and candor about farming dairy with me.

MUSIC

The music in this episode was created specifically for Talk Farm to Me by professional musician and songwriter Douglas Haines via Fiverr.


SPECIAL THANKS

Always thank you to the amazing farmers who have been on any episode of Talk Farm to Me. Thank you Rich and Mark for being the first in this Deep Dive on Dairy!


TRANSCRIPT

As always, a transcript of the episode follows. Please forgive any typos.


Deep Dive on Dairy: Is Dairy Dying?

Season 3, Episode 1


Farm Girl:

Welcome to Talk Farm to Me. I'm your host, Farm Girl. This is the first episode in a deep dive series about the dairy industry and farming dairy. As the first episode, I wanted it to be a dairy 101 of sorts, and it is that. But I will tell you this, it is a much different dairy 101 than I thought it was going to be. We can get into that a little bit later. To get us started on the right track, I want you to meet New York dairy farmer, Rich Dirie. He's been farming dairy his whole life.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

My parents bought the farm in 1944. They milked 10 cows. When they bought this farm, they moved the 10 cows over here. There was room for, I think, my dad said there was room for like 16 in the barn. After a few years, they started milking more cows, and gradually he changed to milking cows on both sides of the barn. That gave him room to milk 30. Then in 1960, I believe it was, we added onto the barn and made room for 15 heifers.


Farm Girl:

Just a quick aside here. A heifer is a female cow. She's usually the daughter of one of the dairy cows, and she's kept on hand as a replacement cow in case one of the dairy cows becomes less productive. Typically, a heifer is bread and starts milking when she's around two years old.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

So that we had 30 cows in the main barn to milk, and then there was 15 heifers in the addition. In 1944, when he bought the place, was the house, the barn, I guess just the bare farm, and around a hundred acres, and he bought her for $5,000. He borrowed money from my grandfather. My grandfather said, "How are you ever going to pay that money back?" He said, "That $5,000, that's a lot of money."


Farm Girl:

$5,000 for a 100 acre farm in 1944. This purchase set in motion Rich Dirie's entire life. Let's go back to the early days when Rich was just a little boy.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

They always say, it's in your blood, and I guess there's something to that. I always said, I knew, when I was six years old, what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a farmer. It's just the tractors, the animals, it's just what you want to do. Oh, it was one of those things, I know when I was 11 years old, I was helping milk cows and doing whatever I could. I was probably around that age when I got put on a tractor to rake hay and bale hay and to do tractor work. It was just, whatever you could handle, that's what you did. Weekends and summer vacation when you weren't in school, you were here working. I mean, that's just ...


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

You didn't ask questions. "Why do I have to do that?" You just did it, was here to do, and that's what you wanted to do anyway. I was much happier driving a tractor than I would be going swimming or something.


Farm Girl:

Eventually, Rich took over more and more responsibilities on the farm and became pretty good at it. Like most farms back then, Dirie's dairy moved from generation to generation.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

From the time when I got out of high school was around the time that they quit doing milk cans, and we had to put in a bulk tank to put the milk in. November 1st was the last day they were going to take can milk at the local creamery. I remember, I don't know, probably about May or something like that, I said to my dad, "November 1st," I said, "if you're going to do anything about putting a tank in, we need to build a milk house. We need to do a bunch of stuff to get this lined up." I said to him, "What's your plan? What are you going to do?"


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

He looked at me and he said, "That depends on what you're going to do, since I'm 60 something." He was 62 or whatever he was. He said, "You know ..." I said, "Well, I'm going to be here." He says, "All right, I guess we better get going and do this." He said, "We got to get this thing straightened around. It was just decided that half of the cows were mine and half of the cows were his, and we just came up with some figures and had a paper drawn up, took it to the lawyer and sign it, and that was it from there.


Farm Girl:

Farm transitions are harder these days. Rich has encouraged his two boys, now grown men, to have jobs off the farm, real jobs, he says, with benefits and pensions. He has seen changes in the business and knows it won't sustain them like it did his parents and his own family.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

Between myself and my wife and my parents, we were doing good. We were supporting both families. We were paying bills, we were buying equipment and everything. From 1970, probably until nearly 2000, I mean, it was really ... We were doing well. You needed a piece of equipment, you traded the old one and bought a new one, and you needed a tractor, or whatever. I'd say we had 10 or 15 pretty good years.


Farm Girl:

I just like to mention to you quickly here that Rich wasn't doing this alone. His wife, Maryann, farmed dairy alongside rich every single day while they were raising their two boys. Maryann sat in on the conversation between rich and me, and you can hear her chiming in, in the background, especially when we get to the parts about money.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

But from there on, we ended up dipping into the savings of what we had saved to keep the farm running. His advice, like he said, he understood that I knew how to run the business and I was good at it. I could make money here and have enough money to retire on, but it didn't work out that way.


Farm Girl:

When you go to the supermarket to pick up a gallon of milk, I want you to think about Rich and Maryann. There are layers and layers of complexity between the cows in their milking parlor and the jug of milk on the supermarket shelf.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

But from that point on, what actually happened is the milk price remained level, but the price of everything we bought kept going up. It got to the point where I was buying seven ton of feed on a load and we were getting three shipments a month, and the price of feed, the price of grain for the cows kept going up, and then it got to the point where one seven ton shipment of feed was costing more than the three that I was getting originally. Then, well, okay, what are we going to do? We have to cut back, feed more hay and less grain, which on the other end, milk production dropped. Now you don't have enough as much milk to send, and the price of the milk is remaining level, so now you cut out on your income.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

But on the other end, your expenses kept climbing, and it just got to the point where it's like, what do we do? The bigger farmers kept producing more and more milk. So, the supply was out there, but demand was either dropping slowly or remaining constant. So, there's more milk, less demand. The price of milk starts dropping, and it just snowballed into a thing where you're actually losing money.


Farm Girl:

Working hard farming dairy every day for decades and losing money.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

From there on, it's just been kind of a struggle really, and trying to figure out what you can afford to buy. You need tractor tires and can't really afford them. Well, maybe we can later go until next spring and we need this and we need that. But what do you do? You don't want to quit because this is what you do. The other problem is, is by that time I was old enough. It's like, what kind of a job 55 or 60 years old, what kind of a job do I go and get? Or I work for another farmer. I mean, that's not ... So, we stuck it out until this past summer, and then I decided it was time to sell most of the cows.


Farm Girl:

I wonder if you're thinking about the other dairy farms in the area. Could this possibly be just a problem with Dirie's dairy? Well in New York state in 1997, there were 9,286 dairy farms. By 2012, that number had dropped to 5,427. That's a loss of nearly 42% of the state's dairy farms, but in Sullivan County, the County where dairies dairy resides, in the 30 years between 1987 and 2018, dairy farm numbers dropped a precipitous 75% from 112 farms to just 28, and that number continues to drop.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

I believe there's either 11 or 12 dairy farms left in the county. I was just mentioning to my wife here the other day, I said, "On this road, there was a farm down the road was a dairy farm. This was a dairy farm. The next place up the road was a dairy farm. The next place above that was a dairy farm, and the place part-ways up the hill, there was a dairy farm." So, there's five that were right here on the road, and you take Stump Pond road up that way, there was four or five. I said, "There was more dairy farms right here in this little cluster than there isn't a whole county now.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

Every road was that way. Every place was a dairy farm and they milk maybe 15 or 20 cows, and everybody made a living. They weren't getting rich, but they made a living. Now, I mean, I guess we could still be considered a dairy farm because I'm milking cows and selling milk.


Farm Girl:

Rich Dirie is still selling milk a little locally, direct to consumers right off the farm. There's an on your on a jar to put the money in, in a glass front refrigerator with raw milk in it. Diries is certified to sell raw milk. That is a whole other issue that we won't get into right now. But besides the impact of a failing dairy farm on the farm family, the Diries, there's a ripple effect. Let's look at how the disappearance of small dairy farms affects the rural communities where they were.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

When I was a kid, there was creameries, there was one in Jeffersonville, there was one in Roscoe, there was one in Youngsville, there was one in Liberty. Every sizable town had a creamery where you could take your milk to. Little by little they ... I don't know what really, I guess, a thing of it was that there wasn't enough milk coming in anymore, or it was costing them too much to have their milk transported from here to New York, or whatever the story was. But little by little, they kept going out. Dairymen's League had three or four cranberries around, and then they decided, probably in 1960, early 1960s, they decided to close three or four other creameries and consolidate and put one creamery up in Briscoe, which worked out good.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

It was kind of a central location, but the sad part of it was, and maybe they didn't see this coming either, they built a new Creamery in, like I say, the early '60s, and by 1970, everything was bulk milk, no more canned milk, and they had to close down their creamery because it was more cost-effective to drive to the farm with a bulk truck, pick up the milk and transport it to a milk plant than it was to have everyone bringing their milk to the creamery, then put it on a truck and transport it to the ... It was one less step in handling the milk and less employees for them and so forth. They just got to the point where they weren't accepting any more canned milk. So, either had put in a bulk tank or quit sending the milk, one or the other.


Farm Girl:

Moving from small scale local creameries to having milk pumped directly from a bulk tank on the farm into a truck was an efficiency. It makes sense. New technology comes in and the industry changes. As the industry shifts to integrate this more efficient process of moving milk, smaller farms have more infrastructure costs that are hard to handle, especially when milk prices don't compensate farmers in a way that enables them to continue. What's more communities suffer. There's a domino effect.


Dairy Farmer Rich Dirie:

But the thing of it is, is that I keep saying, and I'm probably right, is that, at one point, we had, every town had a small car dealership, every town had a small general store. Every farm had 500 chickens, whatever. That all gradually, now we have Walmart and we have big car dealerships, and it's just, I'm saying it's nobody's fault, what it's going to be is big farms, and smaller farms are not going to exist anymore, because you can't. It's just the way economics works, I guess you would say.


Farm Girl:

It's a harsh reality. Smaller firms basically have to go big or go home. Let's hold Rich Dirie's experience up against the bigger picture. I invite you to join me as we zoom out, so to speak. We head to Madison, Wisconsin to meet the university of Wisconsin's Director of Dairy Policy Analysis in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Huh, that's a mouthful, but let's just say that Mark Stephenson is a dairy expert, a dairy historian, a walking encyclopedia of dairy knowledge. Oh, and his