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Dairy cows stand feed while waiting to be milked on Dave Myszkowski’s farm on Jan. 9 in Little Falls.
As small producers struggle countrywide, will a path forward present itself?
By Dusten Rader
When 4th-generation dairy farmers Dave and Kelly Myszkowski described what they called their mid-farm crisis they said, “Things have changed. Things are changing.”
The Myszkowski’s crisis is similar to what many dairy farmers in the United States have been experiencing for decades – tightening profit margins and need for Federal support.
An alarming number of dairy farmers have lost money nearly every year for decades and many are dependent on taxpayer subsidies to survive – the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018 paid out more than $15 billion to agriculture and dairy applicants.
According to a USDA Economic Research Service report titled Milk Cost Return, since 2000 there were only two years in which the net value of milk production was not in the negative. For example: Despite an average gross value of $18.53 per hundredweight of milk in 2018, the return for a producer less the costs associated with operating a dairy farm was negative $3.21.
One option in place to support dairy producers is for them to pay for a type of insurance – currently called Dairy Margin Coverage – which serves as a voluntary risk management program [ www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/dairy-margin-coverage-program/index ]. The DMC in 2018 replaced the Margin Protection Program, but both have offered protection to dairy producers when the difference between milk price and average feed price falls below a certain dollar amount.
The need for such protections arises from unstable prices for dairy as a product. The Federal government has since the 1930s been attempting to bring stability to the dairy market, but the shift of production to large farms is an indicator that it hasn’t worked. Between 1970 and 2006, the number of farms with dairy cows fell steadily and sharply, from 648,000 operations in 1970 to 75,000 in 2006, or 88 percent, according to the USDA.
As a result of dwindling prospects for milk producers in New York state, since early 2018, the state government has awarded more than $30.7 million to dairy farms, protecting 15,102 acres from becoming underutilized or developed.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September announced funding – $18.6 million – in support of conservation easement projects on 25 New York dairy farms. The release states: “Dairy farmers continue to face challenges from prolonged low milk prices, increasing the threat of conversion of viable agricultural land to nonfarm development. Through the Farmland Protection Implementation Grant program, dairy farms can diversify their operations or transition their farms to the next generation at more affordable costs, while ensuring the land forever remains used for agricultural purposes.”
Being that approximately 20 percent of the state’s land area – nearly 7 million acres – is farmland, it’s clear why Cuomo calls agriculture a “critical component” of the economy and states that farms “improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers.” Since Cuomo took office in 2011, the state has invested more than $83 million in 117 farmland protection projects statewide.
“They provide fresh and nutritious food and beverages to our communities and are home to some of New York’s most scenic landscapes,” Cuomo stated in the release. “This program will help ensure our farms continue their successful operations for future generations.”
In 2019, two operations in the Mohawk Valley received a combined total of $1,378,661 of funding. Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust received $417,690 to protect 236 acres of Groeslon Farm and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy received $960,971 to protect 823 acres of Creek Acres Farm. For more information, visit https://agriculture.ny.gov/land-and-water/farmland-protection.
“Dairy is the largest sector of New York State’s agricultural economy and our dairy farmers have faced some daunting challenges in recent years with low milk prices and trade uncertainty,” State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball stated in the release. “These funds help farmers adapt to changes in the marketplace and remain in business, while preserving the land and our farmers’ way of life.”
Following the “success” of Round 1 of the program, New York state is launching a second round of the Farmland Protection Implementation Grant program specifically for dairy. The state will accept applications on a rolling basis for farmland protection grants of up to $2 million from eligible entities, such as land trusts, municipalities, counties, and soil and water conservation districts. There is no application deadline.
Conservation easement projects will be awarded to eligible dairy farms that are:
- Transitioning to the next ownership of a continuing dairy, but whose operation has been modified to ensure greater financial sustainability;
- Continuing dairy, but diversifying the overall farm operation; or
- Converting to a non-dairy farm operation.
All farmland protection project proposals must be submitted electronically through the New York State Grants Gateway. For more information regarding the Grants Gateway, please visit https://grantsgateway.ny.gov. Additional information and the Request for Applications (RFA) can be found on the Department’s website at https://www.agriculture.ny.gov/RFPS.html.
Friend of farmers
Farmers, often isolated from the world at large but also particularly from politics, tend to not have their voices heard on issues that matter the most to them. So, having allies in office as well as an organization that advocates on their behalf is a cornerstone to their success.
One such ally farmers can depend on is the New York Farm Bureau, which states its mission is to, “Serve and strengthen agriculture.” As a non-governmental, volunteer organization financed and controlled by member families, its purpose is “solving economic and public policy issues challenging the agricultural industry.”
Established in 1911 in response to income issues experienced by farmers, a Binghamton chamber of commerce and the Lackawanna Railroad worked with the United States Department of Agriculture and the New York State College of Agriculture to establish the NYFB. Its founders understood that by increasing and stabilizing the income of farmers, the same would occur for the economy.
One of the NYFB’s goals is to identify politicians who will advocate on behalf of their constituent farmers. Through its Circle of Friends program, lawmakers are named based on their voting record and other legislative support on agricultural issues.
Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Meco, was among five regional lawmakers recently named to the NYFB’s Circle of Friends. The Farm Bureau made the announcement in early January based on Smullen’s support of the industry during the 2019 Legislative Session. In a release, he stated the following in regard to the announcement:
“Agriculture has long been a proud tradition for New Yorkers and a cornerstone of our state’s economy,” Smullen stated. “Agriculture is the largest industry in upstate New York, so I will continue to advocate for policies beneficial to our farmers, particularly the many small farms in the 118th Assembly District. These farms are a staple in our community, and in a state that cannot afford to lose another farm or job, Albany should be doing everything possible to support our farmers instead of continuing to pile on costly regulations and mandates.”
In a recent interview, Smullen provided further detail about his selection as a friend of farmers by stating, “I take my role as a State Legislator very seriously, and am working hard for my constituents. Although I am not a member of the Agriculture Committee yet, I strive to understand those I represent by being involved in the important issues and thank the New York State Farm Bureau for noticing my efforts.”
Smullen also addressed the issues facing dairy producers as well as the integral role agriculture plays in the Mohawk Valley.
“The dairy industry has always been a pillar of the Mohawk Valley economy, and along with other agricultural products has helped make agriculture the number one economic driver across Upstate New York as a whole,” Smullen said. “We not only feed ourselves but help feed the millions of people in the city who can’t produce their own food in dense urban areas. That is a point of pride in a very sophisticated global economy, of which we are an important and fundamental part.”
Smullen noted that it is important that dairy farms stay in operation or transition to a new product instead of going out of business.
“Our dairy farmers provide part of a safe and secure food supply that makes our state and our nation strong,” Smullen said. “It is fundamental to our future, and despite the inevitable technological changes which have always happened, this business remains a renewable source of healthy food that all of our people need. With the number of farmers falling to below one percent of the total population, we have to be very careful about how we regulate the sector at the Federal and State level.”
Smullen concluded that having less than one percent of Americans as actual farmers – down from historical norms – is “contrary to our founding roots.”
“Farming is one of the best ways to live off the land, and every American needs to know of the small business opportunities,” Smullen said. “Programs in schools and colleges that highlight the careers are thus important to the future health of what is a very sophisticated business model these days.”
As a 4th-generation dairy farmer, Dave Myszkowski and his family have experienced the ups and downs of the industry and right now, things are down. According to the Myszkowski’s, when Dave started milking in the 1980s, the price was about the same as when his grandfather milked 20 years prior, and it has hit that point again in recent years. Kelly described the situation regarding the price of milk price as complicated, difficult to explain or understand with “no rhyme or reason.”
“Dairy producers have minimal influence on the price they’re paid in terms of milk quality only based on protein and butterfat content – certain content nets you the best in the price range,” the Myszkowski’s explained. “There are many factors influencing those qualities, and you can’t simply and easily manipulate them favorably. Therefore, we don’t have leverage as you may in other agricultural endeavors. You have to find your sweet spot with the ideal herd size, production, and costs. And, the market is currently such that if you decide to stop producing, you may not be able to find a processor who will buy your milk if you return.”
As a result of unstable pricing, dairy producers or their family members tend to have to take jobs off the farm to continue to sustain the operation. For the Myszkowski’s, this has led to increased stress and insecurity about the sustainability of the lifestyle.
“To have the amount of land needed to ultimately produce the income needed to sustain a family, your real estate tax obligation is such that you need an income at a level you can’t sustain working traditional jobs if you decide to quit farming. It’s become necessary to have additional streams of income for most dairy farmers. For many, that’s jobs off the farm,” the Myszkowski’s said.
What’s more, is the struggle goes beyond profit into other aspects of life as well.
Future in question
After four generations of family farming and a history of hard work to create sustenance for others, it would be an unfortunate choice for the Myszkowski’s to step away from the lifestyle, but they might not have a choice. Their situation is a reality many dairy farmers have faced, and if the trend continues there will be no small family farms left.
For decades, the Myszkowski family has managed portions of land that were originally part of the many Burrell farms. Kelly noted that Dave’s uncle believes that their land was once a show farm, and people would travel from all over to see it and learn about farming. It is also believed that the farm had the first round wooden silo in the country, but the Myszkowski family has been unable to prove it. The fate of the land is in question as Kelly and Dave have no children to pass their legacy on to.
Kelly and Dave described a life in which there are no sick days and no vacations. In order to take time off, small operations would be required to have enough labor available to cover all that has to be done, and that isn’t possible for many. Hiring relief farmers is expensive, Kelly and Dave noted.
“It can be risky unless you have established a good relationship with those individuals. And, they aren’t exactly lined up waiting for you to call,” the Myszkowski’s said.
There are constant demands on the time of farmers and there’s way more to do than milk cows.
“You have to tend to their needs health-wise, assist with delivery of calves, clean the barn, do fieldwork if you raise any of your own feed and forage, maintain the buildings, fences, and equipment, trips to procure parts and supplies, etc. – it is a full day’s work,” the Myszkowski’s said.
Dave’s expertise in the field has allowed him to do the majority of work by himself or with the help of his father, who is slowing down and may not be able to contribute for much longer. Dave himself had indicated that he slowing down as well, and uncertain what his next steps will be.
If running the operation wasn’t already difficult and stressful enough, unforeseen problems can arise that put the future of the farm in question. Dave is trying to find a new normal after years of the operation being devastated by stray voltage, while also considering his future.
After becoming established and experienced, Dave had a herd that was healthy and producing very well for several years. He even had to install a bigger bulk tank to store the milk prior to shipping. The herd size total hovered around 100, of which about 60 were milking. During that time, the farm was shipping more than 5,000 pounds of milk every other day. But, then the situation began to decline and even as a 4th generation dairy farmer with a wealth of experience and knowledge, Dave was at a loss.
As time went on, Dave began noticing increasing health and reproductive problems, decreasing production, and an increase in loss of cows – both through death and loss of productive value. The farm’s production numbers began to drop below industry averages.
“Though the problems were notable, the reasons weren’t evident,” the Myszkowski’s said. “Everyone was puzzled. Frustrated. At wit’s end.”
Despite consulting with nutritionists and veterinarians and making changes based on their recommendations, the situation continued to decline. “This all was taking its toll financially, mentally, and emotionally,” the Myszkowski’s said.
Fortunately, their veterinarian suggested consulting with NY FarmNet, which was established by Cornell Cooperative Extension in the 1980s as a result of the high incidence of suicide among farmers, and the overall socio-economic crisis in the industry. The organization provides a variety of free supportive services, including business assistance, as well as assigning a social worker and business management consultant.
The Myszkowski’s business consultant quickly identified that they were in need of expertise from the Cornell Cooperative Extension itself, which eventually included individuals in their meetings.
“In the meantime, on a whim, he [the business consultant] also asked if Dave had ever checked for stray voltage,” Kelly explained. “Dave sat upright in his chair instantly and said, ‘No. That’s a very good idea,’ as if he instinctively knew that was the problem.”
Kelly said the day testing confirmed the stray voltage, a repair crew responded and corrected the problem.
“Cows are sensitive to as little as .25 volt – we had 3 volts in our barn, and 30 volts in other areas at times,” Kelly said. “Stray voltage essentially is electricity flowing someplace it shouldn’t be outside of the intended electrical circuits. Electricity naturally flows to the best ground. When you’re at the end of the power line, like on a dead-end road, it has nowhere else to go. It can’t pass you and go to the next place.”
For the Myszkowski’s, the stray electricity was following the milk line, and when milk flowed from the cow into the pipeline it was completing the circuit.
“Yet, it wasn’t obvious that they were uncomfortable. So, the vet and the nutritionist never considered stray voltage as an issue,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately, it can take at least a year, possibly two, to recover from something like this – if you even can. The rippling effects are far-reaching. At the all-time low, Dave was milking only 30 cows, and shipping about 1300 pounds of milk. But, expenses don’t just drop proportionately.”
The Cornell Cooperative Extension’s intervention was key to solving one crisis, but the victory is small in comparison to the larger issues at hand. Kelly and Dave feel the resources provided to them was priceless.
“They have the connections, resources, and expertise to stay current with new information, research, understanding, technology, and resources,” Kelly said. “Farming has changed and evolved, and it’s hard to keep current on that while still doing what you need to do working a 15 or more demanding hours per day. They see what works for someone else that may help you.”
The Myszkowski’s are extremely grateful for the support they received and continue to receive, but being that Dave is currently in what they describe as “survival mode,” support might not be enough. Making decisions about the future is incredibly difficult in survival mode, Kelly said.
“This is a multi-dimensional situation with many considerations,” Kelly said. “We’re dedicated to making the best decision for us at the best time, whatever that is.”
Kelly added that she and Dave feel that smaller family dairy farms traditionally weren’t run as businesses, but rather they were a way of life. “They were just what you did – and, they worked,” Kelly said. But, now that’s changed and looking for a new direction might be what’s in store.
“Farming is a lifestyle with a work ethic and daily commitment that is similar, yet different, for any entrepreneur,” the Myszkowski’s said. “It’s labor-intensive and the challenges are so huge that it takes a certain commitment and work ethic to endure compared to some businesses. We may be looking for a new direction, which hasn’t shown itself to us yet.”