by Phil Yacuboski
Expect 2019 to be a rocky year in Pennsylvania’s dairy farm industry with more farmers experiencing hardship along with the price of milk continuing to drop.
“The farmers are just in an awful position because of the price of milk,” said Roy Nobles, a Susquehanna dairy farmer, who at 74 still tends cows on the farm where he was born. “Family farms were started with family labor and now, with just a few people on the farm, the overhead is too great for people to live.”
Nobles’ story is echoed throughout the state’s dairy industry, which is seeing drastic changes. The Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence says in 2016, the commonwealth lost 120 dairy farms. However, with more than 6,600 farms throughout Pennsylvania, it represents 15.9 percent of dairy farms throughout the nation. And despite the number of decreasing dairy farms, production across the state is increasing. Pennsylvania ranks sixth in dairy production in the U.S. with an average of 525,000 cows producing more than 10 billion pounds of milk annually.
“There’s a larger supply than there is demand,” said David Swartz, assistant director, Animal Systems Programs at Penn State University. “Milk is a product that people need so much of, so as a result, the price keeps falling because we are overproducing.”
Swartz said in the western parts of the United States, producers have figured out how make milk at a lower cost. He said a farm family in Pennsylvania might have 80 cows and they have to take their family living expenses off those cows. He said smaller amounts of cows mean there’s a greater burden falling on making sure the family can survive. “It puts the whole industry at a disadvantage,” he said.
He also said many Pennsylvania dairy farms are owned by those of the Amish and Mennonite community.
“They want to make a living, but they also want to have the farm as a lifestyle,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s not the push for production increases like there are on larger farms.”
Across the country, the trend has been on dairy farms having larger herds of cows – typically 500 or larger. Pennsylvania’s herds are typically 200 cows or fewer.
Swartz believes as smaller farmers cease production, the price of milk should rise.
A recent survey by the Penn State Extension Dairy Business Management team found milk prices will rise slowly in the first half of 2019, but numbers are still below an average of where many experts believe they should be.
The PA CDE says companies like Chobani and Coca-Cola are bringing more processing demand for raw milk because of the products they produce, like yogurt.
“If there were no plant-based drinks masquerading as milk, we might have a 4 percent increase in sales,” said Swartz, “it’s not the major issue that’s causing the pain with low prices.”
“You walk into any convenience store and they have drinks all colors of the rainbow,” said Nobles. “What impresses a young kid, but the color of the drink. Milk is a natural energy drink and perhaps the advertising and marketing needs to be better.”