Saving The Family Farm

I grew up on a dairy farm in Chautauqua County. Our family is still in the business.

My dad was progressive when it came to modernization. We were one of the first farms in the county to chop hay instead of bale it. We contoured our fields to prevent erosion. We installed a milking parlor because it was more labor efficient than a conventional barn layout.

All of this done was done so that we could produce more milk at less cost. We wanted to be the most efficient farm in Chautauqua County. Yet, today, though milking over 500 cows on this farm, it has become increasingly difficult to make money in the dairy business. Nationally, the overproduction of milk has swamped the market and for the past three years, the price to the farmer for milk has gone down in real dollars.

This is not a new problem. My dad often said that he liked everything about dairy farming except that he had no control over the price of the product he sold. He also had a visceral dislike of the way the federal government ran its dairy price support system. According to my father, it was created to be a cheap food program rather than a farm support program.

In our current dairy crisis, more farmers have been going out of business and there has been a growing number of dairy farmer suicides associated with that. Things are coming to a head.

President Trump and others have tried to deflect the blame to Canada which has a robust dairy farm economy. The controls in Canada, they say, limit the amount of American milk that can be imported into Canada. Yet, the facts are that Canada allows up to 10% of its milk to be imported, whereas the U.S. only allows 3 percent. Even if Canada were a wide-open market, it is such a small country compared to the U.S. (34 million vs. 308 million people) that it would have little ability to absorb the vast overproduction of milk from American farmers.

So, what does Canada do that we don’t? They set a price for milk that is sufficient to support a family farm, and then they pass that along to consumers. They also limit milk production so that it doesn’t flood the market. Thus, in Canada, an 80-cow dairy herd can still support a family. Consumers pay more for their milk, but the supply and demand in the milk market are balanced.

Who is to say that may not be a smart way to regulate an important food source as well as stabilize a rural population? The cut-throat way that we deal with dairy farmers in the United States may not be sustainable if we want to preserve a centuries old industry and make it viable for the future.

If you want to see the difference, drive through southern Ontario or Quebec and just compare it with Chautauqua County. Instead of a handful of big farms struggling to make it, you will find scores of smaller farms with well-kept buildings and families still making a living doing what their parents did. Is that so bad? Maybe there is a good reason that Canada doesn’t want to open the flood gates and import cheap American milk… they could end up with the dairy farm crisis that now engulfs our country.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.