The Dairy Debate: When and how will the industry change?

A few Dairy cows drink some water off of W. Martinsburg Road in Lowville.

BY: Steve Virkler
With more cows than people, Lewis County “naturally” relies on its dairy industry as an economic engine.

                However, with bulk milk prices in the proverbial gutter for the past few years, local officials are seeking to rally community support for the industry through the “Naturally Dairy” campaign and encouraging both farmers and agri-businesses to consider diversification in hopes of maintaining the county’s longstanding agricultural support system and the jobs that come with it.

           “My fear is that we’re reaching a critical threshold in Lewis County to support these businesses,” said Joseph R. Lawrence, dairy forage systems specialist with the Cornell PRO-DAIRY program based in Lowville and chairman of the Lewis County Industrial Development Agency board.

                According to a Cornell University study, every dollar of on-farm milk receipts translates to $2.29 worth of economic credit to the community, Mr. Lawrence said.

                And a strong infrastructure of businesses and professionals – including feed and equipment dealers, haulers, veterinarians, feed nutritionists, artificial breeders and even contractors and plumbers who specialize in barn construction and maintenance – has sprouted up to support the local agricultural industry, he said.

                “They could take that skill set anywhere,” Mr. Lawrence said. “But they live here. They spend their money here.”

                “You don’t have to drive three hours to get a part for your tractor like you have to in some other parts of the state,” said Michele E. Ledoux, long-time executive director at the Lowville Extension office.

                While local ag leaders say they haven’t seen a decline in that agribusiness infrastructure yet, they are concerned that it could happen as more local farmers consider selling their cows.

                Mr. Lawrence said he is unsure exactly what that “critical mass” might be, but “my gut says we’re a lot closer than ten years ago.” However, local agribusinesses have proven to be fairly resourceful by adding more general-use product lines like lawn mowers and recreational vehicles, he said.

                While “positive there will always be dairy farms in Lewis County,” Mrs. Ledoux said, the county has already lost seven dairy farms in 2018, and a continuation of that trend would most certainly “change the dynamics of this county.”

                However, most of the shuttered dairies are being bought by other farmers or being used for alternative agricultural pursuits like crop farming, beef cattle or goat farming, she said.

                “They’re still in agriculture, but they’re not milking cows,” Mrs. Ledoux said. “It’s not like we have any land that people are not utilizing. They’re just changing what they do with it.”

                The Amish are helping to keep local farms active by buying them for their children, then operating them with relatively low debt load and overhead, Mr. Lawrence said. “They can make a pretty good living, even with our milk prices,” he said.

                Many local farmers are “just holding the line” by spending money to keep their cows productive but not investing a lot on new equipment and barns, Mrs. Ledoux said. “They’re maintaining things, but they’re not expanding,” she said.

                Mrs. Ledoux said she is seeing some farmers consider a move toward value-added products, including on-farm processing, and more spouses also seem to be working off the farm for additional salary, more affordable health insurance benefits or both.

                Older farmers with little debt tend to be able to more easily weather the dairy industry’s relatively poor economic conditions, Mr. Lawrence said. However, “if you have a mortgage on a farm, you’re really struggling,” and the next generation may not find it feasible to buy the family farm unless conditions improve, he said.

                Enter “Naturally Dairy.”

The six-month initiative was launched in June by the local IDA, Extension and Lewis County Dairy Princess program to bring awareness to the dairy industry’s economic impact and encourage residents to support local farmers by buying dairy products made here.

Although the “IDA is not an ag organization,” officials at the economic development agency felt it made sense to undertake the campaign under its “Naturally Lewis” branding as a way to boost such a vital industry, Mr. Lawrence said.

Cornell estimates one job in dairy processing amounts to 4.72 jobs in other local industries, so the expansion of the Kraft Heinz cream cheese plant in Lowville and addition of a string cheese line has obviously been beneficial to the community, said Brittany Davis, marketing and communication specialist at the IDA.

However, Mrs. Davis said, the new campaign underscores how significant every part of the industry is to the county, and its intent is to show farmers that they are appreciated and remind residents to support them by consuming dairy products.

“If it were not for the dairy industry, many businesses would not be in the north country,” she said. “Dairy and agriculture is the base of our economy here.”