“I know this one’s father is Wrench and this one’s mother is number 6793,” he said of the cow busily nosing at his hand on a recent Thursday morning. “I can trace them back to the 20 cows my father had in 1945.”

Feeding time was approaching for the herd at Cool Lawn Farm, Smith’s 1,200-acre dairy farm in Fauquier County. As the cow started licking his hand, Smith wondered if maybe she was extra hungry or just tasted something salty. Either way, he didn’t mind.

“I like everybody’s natures,” he said of his cows.

Smith is a fourth-generation dairy farmer—his great-grandfather switched from selling machinery to dairy farming in Harford County, Md., in 1909—but he didn’t intend to go into the business.

“[A dairy farmer] was the last thing I ever wanted to be,” he said with a laugh.

In college at the University of Maryland, he thought maybe he’d go into the restaurant industry. Then his uncle needed help milking the cows at his dairy farm and Smith found that he liked it.

“I just liked being with cows,” he said.

The Smith family has now farmed at Cool Lawn since 1970—almost 50 years. But last year, “with the rain that wouldn’t stop,” Smith thought seriously about quitting for the first time.

The miserable, wet weather combined with continued low milk prices and decreased demand for fluid milk to make Smith question the future of his family business.

“It was fine until the last five years,” Smith said. “Those have been the worst.”

“But the thing about farmers is that we’re optimists,” he said. “There’s always another year. We hope things will get better.”

PLUMMETING PRICES

June is National Dairy Month, but it might be difficult for Virginia’s dairy farmers to find a reason to celebrate.

Americans are drinking less milk than ever before. The average annual consumption of milk per person has plummeted from 247 pounds in 1975—shortly after Smith’s father started farming at Cool Lawn—to 149 pounds in 2017, according to the USDA.

“We’re living in a fragmented society,” Smith said. “People aren’t eating breakfast at home as a family anymore. The family unit is broken.”

And while demand for fluid milk has fallen, supply has not.

“For a producer who is milking a cow, it’s not like you can turn a spigot off,” said Tony Banks, assistant director of commodity marketing at the Virginia Farm Bureau. “That milk is coming in every day, two or three times a day, whether you are ready or not.”

The Federal Milk Marketing Order was created in the 1930s to regulate milk prices because unscrupulous milk dealers were using dairy farmers’ urgency to move their milk supplies to force them into accepting low prices, Banks said.

Milk pricing is based on a complex formula that establishes a minimum market price for fluid milk. Right now, the weighted average price of fluid milk for the entire country is $17.70 per hundred pounds of milk, or hundredweight.

That’s down from a high of $25.70 per hundredweight in September 2014, Banks said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average store price of a gallon of milk has also fallen since then, from a high of about $3.80 in December of 2014 to about $2.96 in May of this year.

“This is probably the third downturn in prices for dairy since 2007,” Banks said. “From September of 2014, we have been in an extended decline—and it was already going to be a long recovery before any of the trade issues of 2018 came around.”

While prices continue to stay low, the cost of everything else involved with operating a dairy—supplies, feed and fuel—has gone up.

“Transportation costs have doubled,” Smith said.

According to USDA statistics, the cost of production per hundredweight of milk in Virginia is $25.11—so the state’s dairy farmers are losing on average $5.91 per hundredweight sold.

Smaller dairies are feeling the effects even more. Dairies with between 100 and 199 cows—the size of most of Virginia’s dairy farms, Banks said—lose an average of $7.18 per hundredweight of milk.

Source: https://www.fredericksburg.com/news/local/dairy-farming-takes-a-sour-turn-in-virginia/article_2912b34a-f048-5a5f-a3be-7975098c2f55.html