Jay Sharkey, owner of The Farm at the End of the Lane in Greene County, was among more than 100 small-scale dairy farmers in the Northeast who were told this summer that his dairy, Maple Hill, would no longer be collecting his milk. next year. This will leave Sharkey with nowhere to send the 1,000 pounds, or about 116 gallons, of milk that her crop yields per day.
Sharkey looked for other places to send her milk: “I contacted Horizon and they don’t take milk; I contacted Organic Valley, they are not taking milk ”, but without success. Horizon Organic, which is owned by multinational conglomerate Danone, announced at the end of August that 89 farms in the Northeast would lose their contracts in August 2022.
Sharkey says Maple Hill has abandoned 30 farms, but official details remain scarce. The Kinderhook Creamery did not respond to requests for comment. But Sharkey says there are three reasons Maple Hill is abandoning farms: not enough milk, poor quality milk, or the farm is too far from other farms under contract with Maple Hill. This third reason was the one Sharkey had given in his letter.
“I didn’t think it would get to this point,” Sharkey said. “The stop before us was about 26.27 miles and the stop after us was about 26.27 miles. In the grand scheme of things, especially in organic milk, it’s really not that far.
Horizon has a similar strategy, Sharkey says.
“They can go to Idaho, Ohio, Texas, and get as much milk from one or two farms as they can from all the farms they left in the northeast. This is sort of the direction the dairy industry is taking.
The dairy industry at a glance
Milk is New York’s No.1 agricultural product, according to the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census. The $ 2.7 billion dairy industry employs 26,000 people in the state.
But in recent years, the industry has been in sharp decline. New York City lost 240 licensed dairy farms in 2020, the fourth largest drop in the country, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. No state reported an increase in the number of dairy farms in 2020, and the nationwide year-over-year decline was the second-largest drop since 2003, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture has started collecting the data. The total number of dairy farms has fallen by more than 55 percent since 2003.
Despite the loss of farms, New York City still ranks fourth in the country for milk production, and overall production actually increased by 21% in 2020, which means more milk is coming from fewer farms.
As Maple Hill has abandoned farms, his business appears to be growing, Sharkey says. Maple Hill had around 200 farms in 2018, according to its website, a number that has declined by at least a few dozen since then.
“How can they offer and sell products in all states of the United States?” Sharkey said. “If you abandon farms, where are you going to get milk from? “
The answer, according to Sharkey, appears to be in consolidation, leading Maple Hill to buy increasingly larger or more densely concentrated farms. “It just looks like Maple Hill wants bigger farms with 200 to 250 cows, or milk producing farms with 75 to 80 cows, but grouped together in the same area,” he says. The creamery increased its minimum pickup to 1,000 pounds every other day in 2019, prompting Sharkey to spend around $ 90,000 to build an addition to his barn to milk more cows.
Then this summer Maple Hill let Sharkey down, along with the farmers of Cobleskill and Oriskany Falls, he says. But he picked up other farms in the area. “They send me the letter they are going to drop me off, but right after that they got a farm in Stamford… It’s frustrating.
Sharkey’s contract with Maple Hill will end on January 1, but his contract with Dairy Farmers of America, the company Maple Hill uses to administer payments to farmers and coordinate USDA inspections, does not expire until April. . However, Sharkey worries that DFA will not take her milk either, as they don’t need it.
The DFA contract would bring in about $ 16 per hundredweight – or 100 pounds – of milk, Sharkey says, which is half of what he earns at Maple Hill. He’s not sure exactly what it costs to produce a quintal, but said he heard estimates of $ 22 to $ 23 per quintal, which means he would lose money on the DFA contract.
The situation forces Sharkey to consider bottling her own milk. “It’s the only avenue left,” he said.
Two paths for the dairy farmer
As if dairy farming weren’t hard enough, farmers who are brave enough to take charge of their own processing still have more to do, including more paperwork.
There are two different approaches to bottling your own milk: teaming up with a dairy or getting the equipment to process your own milk.
The first approach requires the enterprising dairy farmer to find a co-packer – “someone who has a creamery, who is ready to bottle, make butter, ice cream or whatever you want to do.” with your milk, ”says Sharkey. “You have to find a way to get the milk to this dairy, then find a way to get that milk home. You need a large refrigeration unit to store everything.
Then the farmer has to find where to sell his milk, which is not as easy as it looks.
“You have to find outlets for the milk locally,” says Sharkey. “You have to come up with a label for milk, butter or whatever. And then after you get the label, you send it to New York State, where they approve it, which takes up to two months; or it is sent back to you, and you wait another month.
Alternatively, a dairy farmer could go it alone and buy his own equipment. But according to Sharkey, it requires an investment of over $ 100,000.
MP Chris Tague, whose 102nd district includes all of Greene and Schoharie counties and the rural areas of neighboring counties, is himself a former dairy farmer who once aspired to bottle his own milk.
Having that sense of pride is essential for farming, he says. “No one in agriculture cares about being a millionaire, I can tell you that, because that doesn’t happen. There is a sense of accomplishment when you produce a good product.
Sharkey agrees. “I don’t have to be rich, I just need to pay the bills so the farm can support itself. ”
In an effort to support farmers and their livelihoods, Tague this year introduced the New York Food Insecurity, Farm Resiliency and Rural Poverty Act, a bill that would make it easier for farmers to process their own meat and dairy products. and expand the Nourish New York. Program, which was created during the pandemic to streamline the product chain from farmers to regional food banks.
“It mainly got someone to get a grant and go into the treatment game on their own,” Tague said.
The bill would allocate $ 35.7 million to the State Department of Agriculture and Markets to facilitate several programs. He would task the Empire State Development Corporation with providing grants to farmers who want to set up their own processing plant. And he would establish a new commission – the Study Commission on the Processing of Meat, Fiber and Dairy Products – to make recommendations on where processing plants are needed in the state to the governor and the legislature. of State.
Other subsidy programs for farmers in the bill include $ 1 million for entry-level farmers and $ 6 million for infrastructure and equipment for veteran and disabled farmers. The bill also proposes to increase the tax credit for farmers from 25 percent to 50 percent.
In Tague’s view, the loss of the livelihoods of smallholder farmers has quasi-existential implications. “We have to think about the future of this country,” he said. “Who will take over these farms?” How are we going to feed America in the future? No farms, no food. I think people need to realize this.
Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are also defending dairy farmers and joined a dozen other members of Congress calling on the USDA to finalize its rule on the origin of cattle. The rule, which was published in 2015, allows farmers to switch their cows from conventional breeding methods to organic methods over a 12-month period.
But although this is a one-time exemption, some farmers take advantage of a loophole by, for example, transferring calves to a conventional farm that uses cheaper, non-organic breeding methods, and then reintegrating them. in the certified organic herd. one year before they are ready to be processed. This allows farmers to continuously evolve their livestock and grow their organic herds faster at a lower price.
“The USDA’s persistent delay in finalizing this rule, which continues to enjoy broad support within the industry, has contributed to the oversupply of organic milk in the market, endangering the integrity of the organic label and kept farmers in our states in dire straits. serious financial disadvantage, ”the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the USDA.
New York, which had the most organic dairy farms in the country in 2017, has a lot at stake, New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher wrote in a letter to the USDA:
The proposed rule would fill the existing loopholes in the current regulations to ensure that organic dairy animals must be raised organically from the last third of gestation or be raised organically for one year in the event of a transition from a conventional herd to organic, which is only allowed once. Additionally, once a separate herd has gone organic, all animals should be raised organically from the last third of gestation. The cycling of dairy animals in and out of organic production is currently prohibited and must continue to be so to ensure that dairy cattle meet organic requirements. This regulation is essential to bring a consistent application and a level playing field to all organic dairy producers.
But the cogs of government may turn too slowly for small farmers like Sharkey, who are forced to completely reinvent their business model or sell.
“Maybe down the line I’ll say letting myself down by Maple Hill was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Sharkey. “May be.”