Connecticut's dairy farmers are stubborn people. And that's a very good thing, considering they're fighting what some fear could be a losing battle against Big Agriculture, constantly rising expenses, and a Congress mired in partisan gridlock.
"If we weren't persistent, there wouldn't be any dairy farms left in Connecticut," says Susan Hastings, whose family has about 110 milk cows on the Suffield farm they've owned since 1916.
"There's a lot of us out there that keep chugging along, trying to make ends meet," she adds sadly. "Sometimes you just wonder, 'Why are we doing this?'"
That question may be asked a lot more in the very near future if those congressional combatants don't find a way to call a truce. Budget disputes have stalled passage of a new farm bill that's theoretically supposed to help the dairy industry.
Without some sort of action on that legislation, milk prices could rocket to unheard of heights. "The price of a gallon of milk starting in January could potentially go as high as $7 if we don't restore and reauthorize the system of price supports that we have in our dairy industry," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, warned during a speech on the House floor earlier this month.
"I can't imagine that happening," Wayne Kasacek says of the possibility that Congress will continue to do nothing about the farm bill. "It would be catastrophic."
Kasacek is assistant director of the state Agriculture Department unit assigned to regulate and inspect Connecticut's billion-dollar-plus dairy industry. He believes the least Congress will do is to approve a temporary fix so Connecticut dairy farmers could keep hobbling along under the existing dysfunctional system.
Even if the farm bill now under consideration is passed, some skeptics doubt it will do much good for small farmers like the ones still milking their cows in Connecticut.
There are far fewer of those folks around than there used to be. Four decades ago, Connecticut had more than 800 milk-producing dairies. Today, less than one-fifth of those working farms remain.
"Given the rate of farm loss in states like Vermont, New York and Connecticut, perhaps the species of dairy farm that most adults today grew up with will be extinct in fifty years," author Kirk Kardashian writes in his new book, Milk Money: Cash, Cows and the Death of the American Dairy Farm, about the plight of small dairy farmers.
"For much of the Northeast, there would be no such thing as local milk. It will be made somewhere out West on a CAFO [confined animal feeding operation], turned into powder, trucked and reconstituted," Kardashian warns.
Kardashian blames Big Agriculture and nonsensical government regulation for many problems small dairy farms face.
The biggest dairies in this state, like Fairvue Farms in Woodstock, operate with only 1,600 cattle total and just 800 milkers. Connecticut's average dairy has only 150 cows, a tiny number compared to massive farms in states like California, Texas, and even New York, which have milking herds in the tens of thousands, Kasacek says.
"Those are monster operations," he says, which allow their owners to benefit from those economies of scale when buying feed and energy. Much of their output is for what Kasacek calls "manufacturing milk," which is used in cheese or has milk proteins that are extracted for a variety of mass-consumption food products.
The federal government's old dairy regulation program was originally designed to ensure farmers could get enough subsidy money for their milk to cover their expenses, even if the price of milk took a drastic drop.
When prices plunge in an ordinary industry, the producer simply cuts back production. The dairy business is different, Kasacek points out: "You can't turn the cows off." No matter what the price of milk is, those cows need to be milked every day.
If milk prices spike in January, there could be a drastic cut in milk consumption, and that could put small dairy farmers in a bind if there is no rational subsidy system.
During the Great Depression, before federal price supports, farmers were dumping their milk because that cost less than shipping it to market.
The old federal farm subsidy program has come in for criticism because most of the money recently has gone to huge agricultural producers rather than to help small family farmers.
The new farm bill that passed the U.S. Senate was supposed to do something about that problem by cutting subsidies to Big Agriculture and allowing dairy farmers to buy into a federal insurance program. They would get additional money if milk prices dropped so low that they couldn't afford to buy grain for their cows.
The political kicker in this mess is that the farm bill also provides money for federal food stamps and nutritional assistance programs — key targets for budget-cutting congressional conservatives. House Republicans refused to go along with the modest entitlement cuts approved in the Senate bill, and so the whole thing got stalled.
Tom Monteith, a 73-year-old dairy farmer just across the Massachusetts border in Granville, doubts the federal dairy price-insurance plan will help much because it wouldn't actually cover the farmer's costs for feed and energy. He says the system is rigged because base milk prices are set by those huge western producers selling manufacturing milk and by commodities exchange traders.
"It's a completely unfair system of doing things," Monteith insists.
Hastings, the Suffield farmer, says her family farm needs to get a minimum of $20 for every 100 pounds of milk produced just to cover expenses. "At one point [this year], it was down to $16 per hundred weight, way less than it cost to produce," she says.
Kardashian advocates small, cooperative efforts among farmers and believes there should be recognition that there are differences in the quality of milk and that farmers should get paid more for higher-quality products.
Right now, most consumers think all milk is alike. "The milk trucks go from farm to farm and fill up their tanks, then they drive to the plant and unload the milk into a bigger tank. Good milk, 'shit milk,' it all gets mixed together and pasteurized — or ultra-pasteurized — and bottled. That means there's little incentive, besides the paltry quality bonuses and premium awards, to make an excellent product," Kardashian writes.
Kasacek says some cooperatives are working in Connecticut, but he doesn't know if that's a viable trend in this state. Other farmers are trying to circumvent the system by becoming their own processors and bottlers.
That's the goal of the Hastings family: bottling and selling their locally produced milk to consumers ready to spend money for higher quality.
"I think they are willing to pay a little more to get something local, at least some people are," says Susan Hastings. The problem, she admits, is that "It's a long, slow road to build that up."
Whether small farmers like Hastings will have enough time to reach their goal is anybody's guess.
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