The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Danville News

July 7, 2014

PA dairy farms shift to grains

— DANVILLE — The decline in the number of dairy farms in Pennsylvania cited in the 2012 Census of Agriculture was no surprise to Jeb Oliver, who runs a small dairy farm in the Beaver Springs area.

“Depressed milk prices and rising production costs, especially during 2009, caused many dairy farmers to make the decision to leave the industry,” he said. “I have friends, relatives who are third- and fourth-generation dairy farmers giving it up because from one year to the next the price fluctuates so much, how can you budget, given the high costs of feed and other things necessary to run an efficient farm?”

Many of those former dairy farmers,” said Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, based in Camp Hill, have “continued to farm, focusing on growing corn, soybeans, alfalfa, raising beef cattle or another area of agriculture. They no longer produce milk. Meanwhile, other dairy farms may have purchased animals from farmers getting out of the business. Despite the loss in dairy farms, Pennsylvania remains the fifth largest milk producing state in the United States and overall milk production increased from the last census.”

Another factor contributing to people leaving the dairy industry is an aging farming population, O’Neill said.

When farmers retire, there is not always another member of the family willing to purchase the operation. Within farm families, many of the sons and daughters of dairy farmers are not willing to put in the long hours, while also dealing with unpredictable markets and volatile prices, he said.

Retail milk prices have risen only slightly this year after surging 9.2 percent last year, according to federal data.

Per-capita U.S. milk consumption has dropped by almost 30 percent since 1975 from its peak during World War II, even as sales of yogurt, cheese and other dairy products have risen, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Reasons for the drop, according to the USDA, include the rise in popularity of bottled water and the concern of some consumers that milk is high in calories. The decline’s recent acceleration is due in part to increases in milk’s retail price, a result of the soaring costs for grains fed to dairy cows, according to industry officials.

Another factor, according to the USDA, is that children, who tend to be heavy milk drinkers, account for a smaller share of the U.S. population than they once did.

But it’s not all gloom and doom, because there still are a lot of young farmers interested in pursuing careers in the dairy industry, O’Neill said. In fact, members of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Rancher Committee say optimism about the future of farming in the commonwealth is at an all-time high.

“It sounds like I’m giving up,” Oliver said, “but I’m not. I love what I do, and I’ll continue to do it. I expect next year, well, who knows? Prices could be up 9 percent again.”

Dairy is still the leading agricultural commodity in Pennsylvania, generating nearly $2 billion in revenue from the sale of milk each year. A strong dairy industry, O’Neill noted, “benefits all areas of state agriculture and supports numerous farm and non-farm jobs.”

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