Milk getting shorter shelf life? (Editorial)
(March 13, 2018) Warnings about the slow demise of the nation’s dairy industry should be taken seriously. They are legitimate.
The USDA reported on Feb. 21 that the number of licensed U.S. dairy farms dropped by 1,600 in 2017, down to 40,219. That’s a decline of 3.8 percent.
Over the past decade, the USDA says, the United States has lost nearly 17,000 dairy farms, a decline of about 30 percent.
How come? What’s happening?
Several reasons: America is drinking less milk. Dairy farmers are having to sell milk for much less than it costs to produce it.
And the costs of operating a dairy farm are increasing, virtually across the board.
With 9.4 million cows in U.S. dairy herds in January of this year, the average herd size has grown to 234 cows. The average herd size in 2008 was about 163 cows.
Wisconsin remains the nation’s largest dairy state with 9,090 farms shipping milk. But it lost 430 farms in 2017.
How about across the Mid-Atlantic? The USDA figures for the states tell the same story. Maryland had 420 dairy farms in 2016; the count was 400 for 2017. Delaware went from 35 to 30. Virginia, slipped from 615 to 585; New Jersey fell from 60 to 55. Pennsylvania dropped from 4,650 to 4,490.
Dairy farmers remember 2009 when milk prices dropped to less than $12 per hundredweight — about nine gallons. Those who survived also remember 2014 when they were getting $24 per cwt.
Today? Reminders of 2009, with the price per hundredweight about $15 on a good day. Most estimates show farnms break even at about $18 cwt. It’s not hard to find a family farm which skidded into debt in the dairy business.
In Mardela Springs, in Wicomico County, Md., William Blan Harcum Jr. and his family are hoping to raise up to $600,000 on the popular crowd funding website, GoFundMe, to save Beechnut Farms. It’s been in the Harcum family, in some form or another, since the 1600s.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are owed to suppliers, and the farm is heavily mortgaged. Low milk prices forced the family to sell the farm’s dairy herd — its primary source of income — two years ago, and, although it turned to grain and produce, it has been unable to recover.
Debt is on the minds of a lot of dairy farmers these days. Americans are drinking a lot less milk than they used to. According to the USDA, the average person drinks 18 gallons a year. Back in the 1970s, it was more like 30 gallons a year. We once hoisted a glass with dinner, soaked our breakfast cereal or dipped into the occasional milkshake.
Milk used to be necessary. There was always a jug or a bottle in the fridge. Not so today: The problem for the dairy industry is that it’s no longer the only beverage option with a health halo. Juice makers offer calcium and Vitamin D-fortified drinks.
Dairy-free diets are widespread. The lactose-intolerant folks no longer believe they need milk to have a complete diet.
But the biggest hit to milk drinking in the United States may be from teens and the youngest dairy consumers, kids ages 2 to 8. They can choose from all kinds of different waters and sports beverages and energy drinks. We are a culture of choice, after all.
And there is this cultural observation: The animal rights movement has led many people to become vegetarians or vegans, also contributing to the long-term decline in cows’ milk consumption.
All of this certainly will require Congress to come up with some sort of dairy price support program, as it has in the past, if indeed it wishes to preserve the nation’s dairy industry. But the 2018 Farm Bill doesn’t seem to have much of a priority these days.
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