Farms lost as hard times continue for CT’s dairy industry

Read the original article by Gregory B. Hladky at here.

Connecticut’s ever-shrinking dairy industry was suffering from low milk prices and soaring production costs last year and things have only gotten worse in 2019, a group of top farmers and agricultural experts told lawmakers Tuesday.

Don Tuller, president of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, and other experts said multiple years of depressed milk prices, inadequate federal assistance, continuing high costs of production, and the global impact of President Trump’s tariff war with China have all had an impact in Connecticut in the past 12 month.

“In 10 years, we’ve lost at least 55 or 60 dairy farms in this state,” Amanda Freund, a third-generation farmer from East Canaan, said at a legislative forum on the continuing crisis.

“Just last year, we had over 100 dairy farms,” said Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. “Now, we have under 100.”

The deficit-driven actions of the General Assembly, which repeatedly siphoned off money from a state fund that was intended to help dairy farms survive tough times, also have hurt this struggling agricultural sector, farmers said.

One key request that several farmers made to lawmakers was to prevent future raids on funding in the state’s Community Investment Act, which includes that money for support of dairy farms.

“The Community Investment Act, when it’s not being swept [of funds by the legislature to help solve state deficits], works really well,” said James “Cricket” Jacquier, another East Canaan dairy farmer.

The plight of farming families in Connecticut, and the loss of some of this state’s oldest dairy operations, attracted national attention in 2018 and was a key reason why the Farm Aid organization led by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp held its first-ever Connecticut charity concert in Hartford.

Tuller said China’s decision to halt imports of U.S. agricultural products as a response to Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods has had a direct impact on some Connecticut farmers.

Any disruption of foreign markets for U.S. dairy products, including powdered milk and cheese, can have a ripple effect that hurts farmers here, Tuller said. “It’s been a couple million dollars in hits to Connecticut dairy products,” Tuller said.

According to a Connecticut Farm Bureau fact sheet provided to lawmakers, the federal government’s program to provide financial aid to farmers hurt by the tariff war is completely inadequate for Connecticut farmers.

“In Connecticut, dairy farmers received $370,560 [in federal aid] to replace the market disruption that cost [this state’s farmers] $5.8 million,” according to the farm bureau’s estimates.

“And costs keep going up,” Tuller said.

The current price for 100 pounds of milk (called a “hundredweight” in the dairy industry) is $17.71, Tuller explained, saying the costs to produce 100 pounds of milk in Connecticut is now $32.70.

Nichols said one fact that lawmakers need to understand is that all of Connecticut agriculture is “an inter-connected web” of farmers who depend on each other.

Farms that don’t plant crops on all their land depend on dairy farms to lease acreage to grow the corn and hay they need to feed their animals. Nichols said dairy farms lease 80 percent of the available cropland in this state.

“Any time you have one part of Connecticut agriculture start to teeter” it impacts throughout the state system, Nichols warned.

Another common theme among the farmers who spoke at Tuesday’s legislative forum is that they are all seeking to innovate and modernize for more efficiency, and all spoke of their pride in continuing family traditions as good stewards of the land.

Several farmers said they have already installed anaerobic digesters to produce methane from animal waste, many have invested in robotic milking systems, and virtually all are using solar power to cut costs.

“I’m very excited to be a dairy farmer,” Jacquier said. “I’m not in this to build a 401K.” He said his goal is to build a legacy “for my kids, for future generations” by preserving the land his family has farmed.

All the farmers said they have had to diversify beyond simply producing milk in order to survive.

John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid at Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, Conn., on September 22.
John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid at Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, Conn., on September 22. (BRIAN HINELINE/Special to The Morning Call)

Freund said her family, looking for new ways to get rid of the manure their cows produce, have been producing and selling bio-degradable pots made from cow poop. “We ship our crap all over the world,” she said, drawing laughter from the legislators on the panel.

Kies Orr, whose family has been farming in Thompson for 76 years, said surviving hasn’t been easy. “We’ve had some bumps along the way,” Orr said, adding that one of the biggest was the death of her father last year.”

Orr said she and her family, like most of the remaining dairy farmers in Connecticut, are determined to find ways to continue.

“My motto is, ‘Farm On,’ ” Orr said.

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