Dying dairies: How drought, low milk prices lead to decline in N.H. farms

By on Aug 30, 2016 in Stories | 2 comments

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New Hampshire has lost 16 percent of its dairy farms in just eight months, and Stew Yeaton is worried his might be next.

Yeaton, who runs the fifth-generation Yeaton Farm in Epsom with his brother Bill, said prolonged low milk prices, combined with this summer’s drought, have made for tough times.

“We should have cut this field a month ago,” Yeaton said, stopping his tractor between rows of cut hay.

Epsom falls right between the “moderate drought” and “severe drought” zones, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor. Across the Yeaton family’s 120 acres of hay and 96 acres of silage corn, Yeaton guessed they’ve had about a 50 percent crop loss due to the drought, and they’ve had to start buying food in Maine for their 180 cows.

Stew Yeaton pauses while haying one of his fields last week. The Epsom farm is one of the dairies in New Hampshire struggling due to drought and low milk prices.  ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

Stew Yeaton pauses while haying one of his fields last week. The Epsom farm is one of the dairies in New Hampshire struggling due to drought and low milk prices. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

“It’s expensive,” Yeaton said. “Almost twice as much.”

In addition, milk prices have created a strain for dairy farms across the state. While USDA agricultural prices listed 100 pounds of milk selling for $23.40 in June 2014, that fell to $16.90 in June 2015. A month ago, the price was down to $14.80.

The Yeatons, like many other dairies, tried to produce more milk when the prices first dropped. That led to a glut of dairy products in the market, and consequently, continually falling prices.

“A year and a half ago, we were receiving 40 percent more than we are right now,” Yeaton said. “It’s close right now – the margins are really tight.”

Concerning losses

New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill, a dairy farmer herself, wrote in her recent market bulletin that of the 120 dairies the state had at the beginning of the year, 19 have since closed.

“We have been very, very concerned about our dairy industry this summer,” she said. This year marks a drastic acceleration in closing farms.

For comparison’s sake, Merrill said, “Over the last several years, we’ve gone from 130 to 120. That 10 farms (loss) was spread over four years.”

And while in the past, smaller dairies may have closed and consolidated into larger operations, Merrill said farmers have been selling cows across state lines, creating an overall decline in New Hampshire’s production.

This is “one of the great ironies,” she added, as the demand for locally grown and processed food has increased.

“The irony being that milk and dairy products that New Hampshire . . . actually produces is a significant portion of its population’s needs,” Merrill said. She added that Granite State dairies make about a third of the products New Hampshire residents consume.

“There’s nothing else that can compare to that,” Merrill said. “Except maple syrup, and that’s not a food group.”

In addition to losing locally produced cheese, milk and yogurt, Merrill said fewer dairies in New Hampshire mean less open land and saying goodbye to the cornerstone of various communities.

Cows spend the afternoon outside at Yeaton Farm, an Epsom dairy that began in the 1800’s.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Cows spend the afternoon outside at Yeaton Farm, an Epsom dairy that began in the 1800’s. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

“Probably close to 70 percent of the farmed landscape in the state is supporting cattle – hay, corn sillage, heifers,” Merrill said. “Dairy farms – they have roots. People are very committed to the land and their communities and have traditionally been big contributors to rural life in New Hampshire.”

As a dairy farmer herself, Merrill knows the decision to close shop has not been easy for the 19 farms this year.

“It’s a tremendous investment financially and in infrastructure – its not something you get into or get out of lightly,” she said. “It’s a very difficult emotional process to go through. And it’s not their fault – that’s the really sad thing.”

Saving the farms

To try to prevent the closure of more dairies in New Hampshire, Merrill said she’s been talking with state Rep. Bob Haefner, the chairman of the House Environment and Agriculture Committee. Both want to call a meeting of the state’s milk farmers’ emergency relief fund board to discuss funding the program during the next budget cycle.

“I would expect it would be mid-September,” Haefner said of the meeting. “For dairy farmers, it is very urgent.”

He added, “I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do until the next biennium – but we can get the wheels rolling.”

In the meantime, Haefner is part of a coalition of elected state officials asking the U.S. secretary of agriculture and the U.S. House and Senate committees on agriculture to help dairy farmers immediately.

“We’ve asked the Congress with the next farm bill to please fix the margin protection program and make sure it’s fully funded,” Haefner said.

So far, the 2014 Farm Bill’s dairy Margin Protection Program hasn’t leveraged a lot of relief. Merrill noted that the most recent payments to date don’t even cover the insurance program’s premium costs.

Perhaps more helpfully, Gov. Maggie Hassan had one of her drought disaster designation requests granted last week by the U.S. secretary of agriculture for several counties, including Merrimack County. Farmers there can now apply for emergency relief loans from the U.S. Farm Service Agency.

Yeaton said different forms of help from the government, whether it be loans or the USDA’s announcement last week that it would purchase of $20 million of cheese from farmers to go to food pantries, are surely something, but not enough to save their business if milk prices don’t rise.

Hay sits ready to be baled in one of Yeaton Farm’s fields in Epsom last week.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Hay sits ready to be baled in one of Yeaton Farm’s fields in Epsom last week. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

“We’re looking at all options,” he said. And in the meantime, he added, “We rely on our wives’ off-farm income.”

The options for Yeaton Farm include changing over to crop farming and in a worst-case scenario, developing open land.

“We haven’t gotten there yet,” Yeaton said. And they don’t want to get there – they would rather continue the family farm’s tradition going back to the 1800s.

Looking at his cows grazing in a nearby field, Yeaton said, “Every farmer I know loves his animals . . . but it is a business.”

Yeaton said he remains optimistic about his farm’s future, though he guessed seven or eight more dairies in New Hampshire would close by year’s end. And he hopes that sends a message to state residents and officials: that dairies can’t keep taking losses and continue operation.

“Don’t take us for granted,” Yeaton said. “Don’t take your local products for granted.”

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter
@elodie_reed.)