Farming is tough, but early hours, long days, and physical demands aren’t the only challenges of the job. Industrialization has slowly but surely put the squeeze on small family farms, making it difficult—if not impossible—for them to compete with large operations. Unfair milk prices, dirty dealings by dairy cooperatives, and a national milk glut have added even more fuel to fire. As a result, small family farms are going out of business at an alarming rate.
Kate Hagerman recently created a short film (available at www.mountainkeeper.org) to bring attention to the crisis faced by small farmers. According to Hagerman’s film, 31 million acres of U.S. farmland were lost to development between 1992 and 2012. That’s an area the size of New York State.
“The reason why I was personally interested in this issue is because I grew up in Virginia. My next door neighbor was a dairy farmer and I watched the struggles that they went through. I always wanted to help, but I never could. I didn’t know how,” says Hagerman. “Now, here I am in New York, and these same issues are still affecting farmers 20 years later.”
Large dairy cooperatives, such as Dairy Farmers of America, have been accused of making it difficult for small farms to stay afloat. “The co-ops have gotten so big, and they’re functioning like a monopoly. Farmers around here only have one co-op to buy from, and that co-op owns thirty percent of the milk and milk products in this country. The executives in the farmer co-op are flying around in private jets. They’re not the farmer-represented co-op that most people think of,” says Wes Gillingham, Associate Director of Mountainkeeper. Gillingham is one of a handful of people in Hagerman’s film who give testimony to the crisis small farmers are facing.
Hagerman’s film also features farmers who have dealt with these co-ops firsthand. In a short interview, Alice Diehl of Diehl Farm explains how large co-ops have been swindling her family for generations. “They were cheated out of their stocks that they had bought into the cooperatives. What the cooperatives did was change their name, started business up as another name, and stuck them for all the money they had put in,” she says.
Some farms are attempting to survive by transitioning to value-added products which can be sold directly to consumers. The Diehl family is working on plans to process its own milk, but upgrades are expensive—especially for farms, which have already seen their economic resources dwindle. “We’re taking out a loan to do that because we have not been able to save any money. We’ve been running at a deficit since 2014. We’ve used up all our savings, we’ve used up everything. We’ve sold everything we could to make money to keep going until we could get to where we need to be,” says Alice Diehl.
Hopefully the Diehl’s loan will pay off, but borrowing money is often a slippery slope for farmers, with many succumbing to debt before new investments can pay off. “The farmers in our area are being bullied into bankruptcy. Our current farm act and the federal milk pricing system is also in favor of ‘megafarms,’ not small farmers. These small farmers who have tried to be part of the status quo are being completely let down by the system. The federal milk pricing system drives them into debt because they are not getting a fair price for their milk. The price that they get for their milk does not cover the cost of feeding the animals, much less the cost of heating their homes. The basics of survival are not being met,” Hagerman says.
In addition to her film work, Hagerman is also a strategic advisor for Catskill Mountainkeeper. The organization has joined forces with with Bethel Woods, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Cornell Cooperative Extension Sullivan County and Sullivan Renaissance to create an emergency grant program called FarmHearts. Grants from $500 to $2,500 are available to struggling small farms. “The idea is that the money goes directly to the farmers. We don’t take any of the donations. It’s a direct give. The farmers apply by filling out a simple one-page application. They demonstrate need, and they get the money. These are needs like repairs for tractors, feed for the cows, and paying bills. Basic things to get by. These farms are on the brink of bankruptcy. This is to stop the sale of these farms,” says Hagerman. Although her film focuses on dairy farmers, Hagerman says grants are available to other types of farms as well.
In the Hudson Valley, agriculture literally shapes the land. It is a part of our area’s beauty, vitality, and heritage. Farms provide open spaces which often serve as wildlife corridors. Agriculture also keeps large swaths of land out of the hands of developers. The loss of small family farms would change the Catskills forever. “Our regional culture is at stake. It’s really important that we do everything we can to preserve these farms and keep them viable,” says Hagerman. “FarmHearts was created to help farmers make it through this crisis while we investigate long-term solutions.” To donate or to learn how your farm can receive a grant, visit the FarmHearts website at farmheartsny.org.