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Connecticut Dairy Farmers Losing Hope, Selling Herds

Joe Greenbacker looked down the long rows of cows munching fodder in the barn at Brookfield Farm and spoke quietly about the reasons why his family has made the agonizing decision to sell its dairy herd and end centuries of a farming tradition.

“When the price of milk drops by 30 percent, our income drops that much too,” he said. “It’s been too low too long for us to survive,” Greenbacker, a tall, lean man with a grizzled beard, said in a resigned voice during an interview last week. “I’m 69, and my brother Dave is 66… Basically it comes down to retirement or working for no money, and we’ve been working for basically no money for several years.”

“We looked at where the price of milk was, and it just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

The Greenbackers aren’t alone in their decision to get out of Connecticut’s dwindling dairy industry. State Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky said he knows of at least four other farmers in this state who are selling or at least considering selling their milk cows after years of rock-bottom milk prices and ever-increasing production costs.

“I do expect there will be more people who say they can no longer continue,” Connecticut Farm Bureau President Don Tuller said of the plight of this state’s dairy farmers. “It’s a very cruel cycle we’re in.”

For families like the Greenbackers, who have been dairy farming for generations, the decision to finally sell their animals can be bitter.

Tears rolled down the face of Melissa Greenbacker Dziurgot, Joe Greenbacker’s daughter, when she spoke about having to say goodbye to the herd of 320 milk cows and calves she’s been managing for her family for more than 20 years.

“I love cows,” she said, explaining that she’s now looking for farms that will agree to take the 70 animals that she and her husband Matt own personally. “I can’t keep them all,” Melissa added, her voice trembling. She is certain she wants to stay in the dairy industry and has had some job offers. “But I want to take care of our cows first… They’re my priority,” she said.

There are barely 100 dairy farmers left in Connecticut, and their dairy herds number between 19,000 and 20,000 cows, according to state and federal statistics. Experts say those remaining dairy operations are facing an uncertain future involving international trade worries as well as the high costs of doing business in Connecticut. “There are a lot of elements impacting the price of milk,” Reviczky said.

Reviczky and others said former customer nations like Mexico have switched away from U.S. dairy products, and other countries that include New Zealand, China and Russia have stepped up milk production. Walmart has also changed its milk buying policies, adding to the problems of many U.S. dairy farmers.

Connecticut’s diehard dairy farmers did get a little good news this month: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has shifted money around to restore $1.4 million to a state subsidy fund designed to help offset the ongoing losses being suffered by dairy farmers. But farmers and state experts say that’s not enough for some operations to survive.

The situation has grown worse in recent years because state lawmakers, struggling to solve major budget deficits, have repeatedly raided those dairy subsidy funds. In 2013-14, the fund had $5.6 million available to help farmers in trouble because of low milk prices. As of 2016-17, the available funds had been slashed by nearly 60 percent.

The state subsidies are based on the difference between the cost of producing milk and the amount farmers are getting for their milk. Reviczky said the current trigger for the subsidy is when the price farmers get for their product drops below $16.50 per 100 pounds of milk. Farmers say their production costs are more than $20 per 100 pounds of milk.

“The payments became less and less,” said Matt Freund, a longtime East Canaan dairy farmer. “Other [state] needs came in and the money just disappears,” he said.

“It would be great if the state could do more to help dairy farmers,” Tuller said. But he doubts Connecticut’s deficit-ridden state government will be able to increase aid for farmers. “The problem is all of the conflicting needs of the state,” he said.

Connecticut farmers pay more for electricity, shipping and feed than in big dairy states like Wisconsin, where production costs for 100 pounds of milk is more than $3 below what it costs for the same amount in this state, according to Tuller.

The Greenbacker’s Brookfield Farm, 415 acres of rolling fields and woods, is an institution in Durham. The family bought the property in 1983, shifting dairy operations from farmland in Meriden and Wallingford near I-91, where the Greenbackers had been farming since 1723.

“We couldn’t afford not to sell,” Joe Greenbacker said of the move from the high-value land of the original family property to the Durham farm. The previous owner of the land that became Brookfield Farm had already sold the property’s development rights to the state’s farmland preservation program. The 415 acres can only be used for agricultural purposes or open space even if the Greenbackers eventually decide to sell the land.

In the 1980s, the Greenbackers invested in a new barn and other facilities, and over the years have hosted many tours to show the public how a dairy actually works.

“There’ve been years in the past that were very successful,” Joe Greenbacker recalled. “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us,” he added. “I’ve spent my life doing exactly what I wanted to do – being a farmer… I’ve had a pretty good life.”

Greenbacker said the farm’s real difficulties began in 2009 when there was a deep drop in milk prices. “That put our farm in a financial bind that, looking back, we never recovered from,” he said. Those money problems meant that Brookfield Farm didn’t have the cash necessary to invest in more modern, and efficient, automated milking systems that some other Connecticut farms are now using.

But investment in up-to-date dairy technology isn’t a cure-all for this state’s dairy industry, Freund said.

Freund said his family’s 300-milk cow farm invested in more modern facilities just two years ago, and then “the bottom fell out of the milk market… It’s been devastating for farmers,” Freund said.

Greenbacker said his family plans to conduct an auction later this month to sell off its dairy herd.

One peculiar aspect to Connecticut’s dairy farming crisis is that, as some farms have been forced to sell their cows, other state dairy operations have been buying those same animals and expanding operations. “While the number of dairy farms is on the decline, the number of cows has remained consistent and production of milk has gone up,” Reviczky said, a result in part of more modern facilities and methods.

“The farmers that stay are producing more milk than the farmers that are leaving,” Tuller said. And more milk production means that the oversupply of dairy products continues to help keep milk prices low, Tuller said.

Oak Ridge Dairy in Ellington is Connecticut’s largest and now has some 2,600 cows and calves, according to Jason Bowsza, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Connecticut farmers and state experts say the dairy industry’s troubles predate the administration of President Donald Trump, but add his recent decisions on tariffs appears to have triggered an international trade war that is likely to make the situation worse. Tuller said U.S. agriculture is now “the target of retaliation” from the European Union, Canada, Mexico and China.

Tuller and other state dairy farmers said it’s uncertain when — or even if — the milk market will eventually rebound.

“I don’t think you can predict it,” Tuller said.

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