Low milk prices threaten their very livelihood, forcing some to put their cows in Hosking’s weekly auctions to keep up with payments to creditors.
Others, said Hosking, have sold off their entire farms, land and all, and still end up with too little money to escape their debts.
“It has been heartbreaking,” he said. “They’re feeding America, and they deserve better.”
The deteriorating market in the nation’s third highest dairy producing state has not gone unnoticed by leaders of Agri-Mark Cooperative, which buys milk from dairy farmers and sells it to processors.
In its February newsletter, the organization provided contact information to help dairy farmers get assistance with depression, tense relationships and suicide-prevention counseling.
“We have reached the halfway point of a particularly stressful winter while also facing falling milk prices,” Agri-Mark Senior Vice President Bob Wellington said in the newsletter.
He went on to suggest that “farm families are incredibly resilient, but some members may want to take advantage of helpful programs where they can talk with experts about work and financial stress, depression and anxiety, grief counseling, substance abuse and family relationship issues.”
There’s a reason behind Wellington’s message. It was an Agri-Mark driver in upstate New York who discovered a note tacked to a barn door in January of 2010 at a dairy farm run by Dean Pierson. The note instructed the reader not to enter and to contact the police.
The 59-year-old farmer, according to police reports, had killed each of his milking cows that morning with a .22-caliber carbine rifle before sitting on a chair and turning the gun on himself.
A note beside him read, in part: “Lonely. Discouraged. Overwhelmed. No hope. Can’t go on. Danger to my family. Worn out.”
A 2016 suicide study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that farmers take their own lives at a rate greater than any other occupation. Experts suggest that financial pressures, isolation and challenges in accessing health-care facilities are among the factors.
The Agri-Market newsletter suggests New York farmers who need help coping with personal problems contact FarmNet, a confidential counseling and support service headquartered at Cornell University in Ithaca.
It also has cadres of 27 specialists in farm business and another 17 personal counseling experts sprinkled across the state.
Many of the farmers who contact FarmNet are struggling to pay their bills, said Dan Welch, one of its five staffers.
“The farmers have been trying to reduce some of the costs they can control, cutting back on some of the larger purchases,” he said. “They’re not buying new tractors or building new barns. They’re trying to watch every expense because the price they are getting in many cases does not cover the cost of productions.”
Milk prices now stand at about $17 per hundredweight, down from $25.49 per hundredweight in 2014, and — with what experts now say is a glut of milk on the market — are projected to fall to about $16 this year.
The low prices have resulted in a struggle felt just 35 miles from New York’s seat of state government in Albany, at the sprawling Crossbrook Farm in Middleburgh run by Jon and Heather Prokop on 285 acres first tilled by Jon’s great-grandfather.
“Farmers have gotten really good at making milk, and so now there is a huge surplus,” he said. “So we’re caught up in a national problem.”
The 47-year-old farmer acknowledged he has entertained thoughts of going into a different line of work. But, he added, a complication of selling off a herd is the slumping price forf dairy cows.
“The future of our industry is scary,” he said.
The New York Farm Bureau is urging the state legislature to double the existing tax credit, to help their members cope with the consequences of a higher state minimum wage enacted under Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“There’s not much more farmers can do to cut their costs but just try to get through it,” said Steve Ammerman, Farm Bureau manager of public affairs. “There is a ripple effect to all this. When the farmers aren’t making money, they’re not out there spending money.”
In New Berlin, Tom Hosking said that if more farms fail, the economy of the upstate New York dairy region will become even more stagnant.
“The biggest problem in the industry is the government wants to control the price but they don’t want to control the supply,” Hosking said. “If we keep losing these farms, there are going to be a lot of hungry people in our communities.”
Joe Mahoney is the CNHI state reporter for New York. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org