North Adams Transcript
With Sunday’s expiration of the 2008 federal farm bill, so went a key safety net for struggling dairy farmers nationwide. Northern Berkshire’s remaining few dairy farmers say it’s this brutal summer’s latest blow.
An historic Midwestern drought first skyrocketed fuel and grain prices, while the milk price, in turn, fell. Congress’ stagnation came at the worst of times, marking an immediate end to Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) payments. On top of it all, a U.S.-subsidized ethanol fuel program continues to divert a third of the nation’s depleted corn supply toward a boondoggle in the eyes of many.
For small family operations, these hardships could prove deadly. Long-established area dairy farms, having weathered misfortunes brought by recent years, are again under pressure.
Victor Ziemba and John Galusha, of Broadlawn Farm on Walling Road in Adams and Fairfield Farm of Blair Road in Williamstown, respectively, see an increase in the price of milk as inevitable if they’re to survive.
"The rule of thumb is the grain price should be one half of the milk price," Ziemba said. "Right now the milk is one half the grain. ... We cannot keep paying the bills. They’re getting way ahead of us."
Ziemba said if the price of milk kept up with the price of inflation, it’d be $48 per hundredweight (cwt.), or roughly 12 gallons. Instead, September’s price was $15.56 per cwt., according to the Northeast Marketing Area Price Information.
MILC payments were previously available to compensate farmers for half of their losses when milk price fell below $16.94 cwt. This is no longer the case without a replacement farm bill.
"That’s dead for the rest of the year and I don’t know if it’s coming back," Galusha said. Even that safety net, Galusha said, was insufficient.
"You take what you can get," Galusha said. "But no. It’s not enough. ... Higher milk prices is always the bottom line."
Both farms are milking roughly 200 cows.
Douglas DiMento, spokesman for Agri-Mark, a farmer’s cooperative that purchases dairy products from more than 1,300 farms across New England, reported "no good news" in a Friday interview.
"Unfortunately, an extension [of the Farm Bill] would have helped dairy farmers by extending the MILC safety net program," DiMento said. "Now it’s expired at the worst time -- [milk] prices don’t look good, fuel and grain costs have risen sharply. Overall, it’s just a rotten time for program to disappear. ... All feed ingredients have gone through the roof."
DiMento said Agri-Mark plans to continue pushing hard for a farm bill that will "stabilize prices at higher levels." Agri-Mark hopes farmers can hold out over the next several months, with a modest increase in the price of milk expected.
DiMento added that the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports Northeastern milk-production costs are the highest in the nation because of the cost of farmland per acre, labor and insurance.
Ziemba and other local farmers also took hits from Tropical Storm Irene last August. After filling out applications for compensation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ziemba said he ran up against a wall.
"The guy told me, ‘sell your land and you can pay the bills,’ " Ziemba said. "It’s amazing [that] there’s only three or four of us [dairy farmers] left in whole area, and I don’t think we’ll last much longer. It seems like everything’s stacked up against us."
Ziemba worries that industrial milk farms with thousands of cows are the trend of the future, and it’s backed by USDA statistics. At huge operations, disease prevails among the animals, necessitating drug treatments. The milk is of inferior quality due to the poorer health of the cows, Ziemba said.
"At every farm in whole area, the animals are basically drug-free," Ziemba said. "Family farms take care of the animals because they’re our livelihood."
In a press release Monday, National Milk Producers Federation president and CEO Jerry Kozak called for the Dairy Security Act -- a similar safety net -- to replace MILC payments.
"We are in uncharted waters, and one of our life rafts has disappeared," the release read.
To reach Phil Demers, email