Low milk prices push small dairy farms out of business

A farm in the town of Franklin, Vt. After 30 years, the owners decided to sell their cows. As the costs of running a farm rise, farmers are getting paid less for their milk. That's forcing some farmers to get bigger or auction off their cows.

Auctioneers sell a herd of Jersey cows after its owners decided to get out of dairy.

Kai Ryssdal: You think of that perfect Vermont dairy farm and you probably picture a red barn and rolling green hills. Yeah, that picture's not so perfect anymore. Low milk prices mean a lot of those small family-run operations are going out of business. And farmers who do stick with dairy are finding there's only one way to survive.

Melody Bodette reports from Vermont Public Radio.

Melody Bodette: When a family decides to get out of farming, they need to sell their cows. So, dairy auctions are more common these days. This one is in the town of Franklin, right on the Canadian border.

Jon Lussier: All right there you go... isn't she lovely? $1,500.

Three years ago milk prices hit record lows. Then prices doubled. Now they're falling again. Auctioneer Jon Lussier says the return to low prices makes it hard for small farms to survive.

Lussier: The price of milk is going down the forecast doesn't look good because everything else is so high, fuel and fertilizer -- so high right now.

The costs of running a farm are rising, while farmers are getting paid less for their milk. Many farmers took out lines of credit to keep operating, but as prices fall again they're unwilling or unable to borrow more. And as farmers get older, working long hours, seven days a week, becomes harder. So many farmers are simply selling the cows.

Shane Hoague: They've worked hard, they've got a nice farm, beautiful animals, but you know, you can only work for free for so long.

Shane Hoague got out of farming last fall. Now he's a bystander at the dairy auction. He blames the constant fluctuation of milk prices, which made it hard to set a budget. It also scared off loan officers when he tried to increase his herd size. But giving up the dream of owning a farm was difficult for Hoague and his wife.

Hoague: It almost tore the family apart. I wanted to keep going, to keep plugging away, and my wife knew it was time to get out. I didn't want to accept that fact.

Many Vermont dairy farmers say that with low milk prices you have to get bigger to stay in business. The state still produces the same amount of milk, but there's a smaller number of farms with larger herds, like Amanda St. Pierre's Pleasant Valley Farm in the nearby town of Berkshire.

Amanda St. Pierre: Mainly it's just an economy of size. You can do things a little cheaper per cow than you can on a smaller dairy.

In the last 15 years, St. Pierre's farm has grown from 100 cows to 2,000. She says getting bigger does have advantages.

St. Pierre: It's a lifestyle thing. Smaller dairies you work, work, work, work 24 hours. we put in a lot of work here, but we're able to offset it with more employees.

But even big farms feel pinched when milk prices fall. St. Pierre says while her farm may be one of the largest in Vermont, but it's small compared to dairies in California.

St. Pierre: The West Coast really is flooding the market. They've put in place tight supply control measures that hopefully we're going to see that affect our price here in Vermont.

Even if milk prices start to go back up, it will be too late for the small farmers who made the decision this spring to get out of the dairy business.

In Northwestern Vermont, I'm Melody Bodette for Marketplace.

About the author

Melody Bodette is a producer at Vermont Public Radio. She grew up on a dairy farm in Addison County, Vt., and spends her free time gardening, cooking, and being outside as much as possible.

Auctioneers sell a herd of Jersey cows after its owners decided to get out of dairy.

Log in to post3 Comments

Oy Vaysmir, enslaving cows, and maybe even shooting Bambi's father...My Amish friends run a small dairy farm of about 40 head or so and farm the rest. If milk was their only product, surely they would have sold out by now. True, many Amishmen and women work in factories (camper usually, but others too) to supplement their income until they can buy land...We must all diversify and be sympathetic to the entire body of the USA and globally, not just our own little domain. I myself am not a farmer, but I provide recreation and rest to the farmer by driving his wife around in my car and shopping and going to the Goodwill for a little fun, etc. One hand washes the other.

Milk is one of those commodities that is truly a monopolistic one: If People were smart....and they ain't...they would consider the alternatives to Cow Milk. I'll let those who are more versed in the wierdness of Veganism elaborate ( I say that with all affection to those wierd-O Vegans, btw) on the alternatives. However, I'll just say that I do enjoy Soy & Almond Milk better than Cow (hormone ocktail) Milk. However, I will also acknowledge that Soy does take it's toll on the land, as well,

But, my bottom line is this - There ARE very serious (& tasty) alternatives that 'consumers' (Gawd, I hate that word) can evaluate. But again,,,'People' are generally stupid sheep that will close their minds down to anything that isn't what their parents used (they also thoughtt that Smokin' was good, too).

@The West Coast flooding the market....The West Coast milk industry only has an advantage because it has cheap labor. People will do just about anything if they are either desperate, or want to live in CA. But people in CA are paying for the likes of milk in many ways; Southern CA is the most water polluted place in the US mostly due to CFO's. A handful of people make money while the rest of us drink poison water. Who needs milk? It should be priced like the luxury item that it is. It is only our inhumanity and disrespect to animals that we have milk at all. We can m ake a lot more soy milk on an acre of land, than the droplets we get from enslaving cattle. Vermont, save your land and your rivers and streams and your lakes, your respect, and ultimately your children.......plant soy and lets move forward instead of living in the dark ages.

With Generous Support From...