It's a downright scary time on the farm right now, especially for dairy farmers
Editor's note: This is a post created by Melissa Marti that appeared on their Marti Farms' Facebook page. She and her husband, Travis, run their family's dairy farm near Vesper, Wis., and milk 410 cows and run 1100 acres of cropland.
#Thoughtful Thursday...Today isn't a great day. I think it's been building over the past couple months but has really gotten worse over the last few days; the weight of the situation of agriculture as a whole (and dairy specifically) right now.
People, it's not a fun time. It's not an easy time. It's a downright scary time.
Let me apologize in advance—I have tried really hard to keep posts on this page uplifting and educational. We are not asking for pity. Some prayers wouldn't hurt, and a couple extra block of cheese or gallons of milk in your shopping cart would be great, but mostly I just need to get this off my chest.
Trav and I sat down for the first time last week and actually talked about the dreaded "what if." What if we didn't farm anymore? What would we do? Where would we live? What would life look like for our kids? It was such a heavy talk-one I never imagined having with him, and one that has left me in this funk for days.
I want to make it clear—we have no plans to walk away from the farm. We are hanging in there and have strategies and plans in place for dealing with this depressed market.
With that said, we would be just fine without farming. We don't NEED to farm. Travis is an intelligent man and a seriously hard worker—he has a mechanical engineering degree. He's well-connected in the ag industry and could find a job working at a feed mill or in agronomy if he wanted to stay involved with agriculture. I have a teaching degree and could get a full-time teaching job if my family needed me to go back to work.
We don't NEED to farm to make a living. But we LOVE to farm.
We gave up cushy 9-5 jobs in the city to move back to Wisconsin and live on his family's farm. We have poured our sweat, blood, and tears into this business for the past 11 years—not because we're getting rich, but because it is the best way we can imagine to live and to raise our children.
It's so hard to watch everything that we've worked so hard for devalue so quickly. The cows that we hand-selected and paid well for just a few ears ago are worth a fraction of what we paid for them on our balance sheet.
The calves that we could sell at auction a few years ago for $500 each are lucky to bring $10 each (sometimes you actually end up having to PAY the auction house because the calves bring less than what it costs to ship them to the auction house and pay for the auction house's commission).
And worst of all-it costs us more to make the high quality, nutritious milk that we work do hard to produce than we get paid for it.
The price that it costs a farmer to produce 100 lbs of milk is called the cost of production-it takes into account all the things farmers have to pay for (labor, feed, medicine,etc.) to produce milk. If you are a dairy farmer and you don't know your cost of production, you need to figure that out right away.
According to the USDA and PSU Extension websites, the average cost of production is around $20 per hundred pounds of milk (cwt). We have been able to be very efficient and have been able to maintain a cost of production that is lower than the average, but there is only so much that can by trimmed out.
Right now, the price paid for Class III milk is around $14.50/cwt. Let that sink in: It costs the average farmer $20 to produce 100 lbs. of milk, but that farmer is only being paid $14.50 for that milk.
We get paid some premiums on top of that for our butterfat, protein and cell count levels, but at the end of the day, we lose money with every gallon of milk that is pumped onto the tanker.
And it's not like just because farmers aren't making any money that our bills are going down. We try to cut costs everywhere we can, but we still have to pay the feed bill, the electric, the diesel fuel, the vet bill, employees, medicine costs, workers comp insurance, farm insurance, manure hauling...none of those costs go down just because our milk check goes down.
So how do farmers survive through these times when they are losing money? They try to operate as efficiently as possible, and they borrow money. They use an operating loan from the bank to make ends meet and stay afloat and in return, they lose equity in their business. So basically, they sell part of their business to the bank in exchange for enough funds to pay the vet bill or the feed bill for the month.
The dairy industry has always been cyclical, and farmers understand that. It isn't a big deal to borrow money during a down year to stay afloat because you know you'll have an up year the next year and you'll make a little more money and pay off all those loans. That's the nature of the beast, and we are used to that. But today's market is different. We have been stuck in a down cycle for four years. Some dairy economists claim that we are caught in a "supercycle." These economists predict that this supercycle could last through 2020.
This is a scary reality, and it seems like it's going to keep getting worse before it gets better. On November 1, 2008—just 10 years ago—there were more than 13,500 farms in Wisconsin. As of November 1, 2018, that number had dropped to around 8,200. The sad truth is that there will likely be many more farms that close their doors before things turn around.
And I don't know what the solution is. I don't know how to make it better. All I know how to do is share our story and hope that you share our story, too, when you are talking about agriculture with people you know. We are not the big, bad ruining the environment, "abusing our animals" people that so many in the mainstream media want you to think we are. We are just regular people with growing families trying to produce healthy, sustainable food for the nation while giving our kids the best childhood we can.
We aren't jumping ship. We have no plans to close our doors and (God willing), things will turn around. We are making it work-it's just not much fun to work your ass off all year just to break even (if you're that lucky).
We love this life too much to give up, but can certainly understand and sympathize with the people who decide that enough's enough and walk away in search of something else-something that allows them to sleep a little better at night.
For those of you barely hanging on—talk to someone. Your spouse/family is a great start, but make an appointment to talk to your banker, too. Find out what your options are when push comes to shove. Make a plan.
And while we wait for the rainbow after the storm, let's remember to be kind to each other. Offer a smile or an ear if you know a farmer who's stressed out right now. And for goodness sake-when you are making your Christmas cookies this holiday season, please remember to use real butter! :) <3