These are suicidal times for America's dairy farmers because the milk they produce is costing them more than they are being paid for it.
The National Family Farm Coalition hosted a media teleconference Thursday during which dairy farmers from across the country, including Pennsylvania, underscored the depressing, financial realities faced by family-run dairy farms.
Arden Tewksbury of Meshoppen, Wyoming County, said it costs Pennsylvania's dairy farmers about $2 to produce a gallon of milk, but in 2009 they were paid only about $1.12 for that gallon and this year are getting a slightly higher but still scant $1.32.
Lisa Hall, of Muncy, visits with her favorite brown Holstein cow after the 7 p.m. milking on Thursday. Hall is one of the family members who lives and works on the Everbe Family Farm.
Wisconsin dairyman Paul Rozwadowski, chairman of the NFFB's dairy subcommittee, said dairy farmers nationwide are being similarly underpaid for their milk. It's a trend that favors big corporations and threatens to kill off the small, independent dairy farm.
Farmers are working longer hours - often seven days a week - to keep their farms and feed their families, he said, and many still are not making what they need to survive.
Robin Fitch, whose family runs a dairy farm in central New York state, said some desperate milk farmers even have resorted "to digging in Dumpsters to feed their families."
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NFCC executive committee member Joel Greeno, also in Wisconsin, said the stress and tension of farm life is leading to increased suicides and domestic problems for farm families. He likened the current system for setting what farmers are paid to old-fashioned "price fixing," deserving investigation by the federal Department of Justice's "racketeering division."
The dairy farmers and NFFC members taking part in the conference call all support a bill co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Sens. Robert Casey and Arlen Specter, but it has failed to pick up much support and is making very slow progress.
Tewksbury said he believes American consumers would support the legislation even if the pricing adjustments mean higher milk prices as long as it guarantees farmers get prices at least equal to their production costs.
Greeno suggested the system will not be fair until farmers are paid a fair price and "the big stores (are held) accountable for what they charge consumers."
The small farmers have almost no voice in Congress, he noted, while corporations - many of which want to import more milk products - have lobbying clout and deep pockets and are able to use the independent, small dairy farmers as "pawns" and cheat them out of fair prices for their milk.
There are about 57,000 dairy farms in the nation, according to Donna Hall, who lives on Everbe Family Farm, off Route 118 outside Hughesville.
About a third to half those farms are at risk of disappearing as the crisis gets worse, she said, and even the big farms are in danger of sinking so far in debt that they fail along with the small ones.
If this happens, she predicts, the importation of milk protein into the country will increase.
Hall listened in on the teleconference Thursday and concurred with the panelists who suggested imported dairy products, such as milk protein powder, don't come with the same consumer safeguards as the milk products produced in this country and are more at risk of contamination.
The frustrations and despair of the dairy farmers of America led about 4,000 of them to take part in a nationwide "milk dump" earlier in the month to protest the pricing situation.
Thousands more may have sympathized with the cause but stayed away - some claim out for fear of offending big companies that buy their milk.
It's the companies at the other end of the tanker trucks, who process, package and sell the milk that make the profits, Hall said. The farmers, meanwhile, are clinging to their farms by any means possible.
Consumers and legislators must soon start paying attention, added Tewksbury, because the dairy farmers "can't wait much longer."
He urged the state's federal representatives to rally behind the bill supported by its two senators because - as of now - its the only one to address the pricing issue.
Hall said her family's farm is surviving mainly because of a gas lease, which, instead of providing money and equity, is disappearing "down a big black hole" just to keep producing milk.
She said the struggle to survive will continue because of their love of the land.
"We love what we do," she said. "We love the farm."