At 64, Terry Tanner still loves his job milking 76 Holsteins in a barn where he began in Warren, Conn. in 1974.
But is it worth it?
He’s taken just three vacations in that time and hasn’t had a paycheck in two-and-a-half years.
With hope for higher milk prices long faded, he works out of habit on land farmed by a Tanner since 1798 — that is, until this fall, when the herd of 200 head of quality cattle will be sold and Tanner will transition to hay production.
Tanner hesitates in conversation to settle on the “very tough” decision to quit the dairy business, a final leap he’s considered with his wife, Tara, for a while.
He is not alone.
The price farmers are paid for their milk remains low, at just over $17 per hundredweight, hardly enough even with subsidies to ease the burden of rising operating costs and debt.
At that price a good Holstein producing nine to 10 gallons of milk makes $14 for 10 months a year after reaching 2 years of age, and for the rest of her five to six years of production.
The milk has to pay the grain bill — at $400 per ton — and hay unless you make it yourself, which can mean costly machinery debt and repairs.
Today, just 112 dairy farms ship milk in the state. A few years ago, that number was 147. It continues to dwindle as mid-sized family-owned dairies like Tanner’s either sell their cows or consolidate with bigger farms. Twenty-five years ago, the state had the same number of cows — about 25,000 — but they were kept at more than 300 farms. The average milk production per cow has increased, adding to a glut of milk and nowhere to deliver it.
Demand for milk in the United States is down, including in Connecticut, where just 50 percent of the 92 million gallons of milk consumed annually is supplied by regional farms. The Agri-Mark processing plant in Springfield, Mass., is at 100 percent capacity, said Canaan farmer Cricket Jacquier, a member of the board of directors for the farmer-owned milk cooperative. It can’t accept more milk.
Census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the average age of farmers in Connecticut at 58. There were 10 percent fewer farmers under the age of 45 in 2012 than there were in 2002.
“It’s not going to get any better,” Tanner said. “It’s ‘get bigger’ or ‘get out.’ ”
Farms that remain have been growing, or supplementing the milk check by selling value-added products directly to consumers.
In Goshen, you can trace the milk used in Kimberly Thorn’s premium milk house chocolate creations to a cow with a name. Their small herd is housed in a post-and-beam barn a few feet away.
At Arethusa Dairy in Litchfield, the demand for flash-pasteurized milk, cheese and ice cream made from the milk of show quality Holsteins and Jerseys in their local barn has expanded to outlets in New Haven and now Boston.
“It’s not a big number but it’s significant they are doing it,” state Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said, adding that Arethusa is an anomaly.
Dairies that ship milk have been increasing their herds and adding robotics to the milking process to reduce the cost of labor. Reducing costs, Farm Bureau Executive Director Henry Talmage said, is all that a farmer can do.
Prices paid by cooperatives like Agri-Mark depend on global pricing that tend to rise and fall unpredictability, and at the whim of trade policies with Mexico and Canada that are now in question as President Donald Trump tries to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Fifteen percent of fluid milk produced in the U.S. is exported, mostly to Mexico and Canada as milk powder, cheese and whey protein.
Robert Jacquier started milking a few cows at Laurelbrook Farm in Canaan in 1948. Today his grandchildren now work at the 1,200-cow dairy, which operates around the clock.
Across the state in Ellington, Oakridge Dairy is completing a multimillion-dollar expansion to milk 3,000 cows.
Cricket Jacquier worked Saturday at a machinery dispersal sale at Sunset Hill Farm in Canaan, another casualty of pricing. The cows have been sold and the barns leased to Jacquier to house replacement heifers. Jacquier bought one of the stainless steel milk tanks, worth tens of thousands of dollars new, to keep it intact.
Nearly one-third of all farms in the state are owned by farmers age 65 and older. Like the 64-year-old Terry Tanner, 92 percent of Connecticut’s retirement-age farmers do not have a younger operator on site, according to a report by the American Farmland Trust and Land for Good. Tanner and his wife have four sons, but none of them is interested in claiming another generation of dairy.
It’s the same story across much of New England, where the study found nearly 30 percent of New England’s farmers are likely to leave farming in the next 10 years.
Butch Klug said he’ll continue to milk 95 cows off Klug Hill Road in Torrington, where his grandfather began milking in 1899 and where he works with his two sons today.
“But we aren’t buying the equipment we should and we are having trouble,” he said. “The cost of grain is up and the milk check is not.”
The Klugs are banking on a 4,000-square-foot farm store to supplement income with local produce and maple syrup.
Depressed pricing will pick up, Cricket Jacquier said. He hopes that Trump will listen to the dairy farmers he met last week about the need for stepping up, rather than compromising, world trade.
“Right now nobody is making money, small or large, but we have to have the attitude that things will get better, that the markets will correct,” Jacquier said. “It’s really, really hard. We are relying on each other.”
Demand across the world needs to be harnessed by trade agreements, Jacquier said, and more capacity added to processing plants. Although demand for fluid milk continues to slide, sales of cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are on the rise.
Reviczky said that even as Connecticut continues to lose small- and medium-sized farms, the state is committed to maintaining a vital dairy sector — even if the current price being paid to dairy farmers here is “unsustainable.” He sees a need for a more regional price structure, to assure higher production costs are covered. Federal policies are set based on national “blend” pricing structures.
Keeping dairies in business also maintains open space, Reviczky said. Farmers are stewards of the land.
“It’s up to Congress and government to think long and hard about policies,” Reviczky said. “But farmers need to think outside the box.”
Farmers who agree to sell organic milk get a higher premium, but also have higher costs for their feed or lower production if the feed is just hay and pasture.
The farm bureau’s Talmage said price drops have been devastating. The Community Investment Act that was passed in 2009 to bridge the gap between the cost of production and the milk check has helped, but the $14 million it delivered hasn’t been enough as the gap between costs and profit widens.
The demand for locally produced food won’t be enough, either.
Although 60 percent to 70 percent of consumers say they would choose local production, the willingness to make that choice drops to just 8 percent when costs rise, Talmage said.
“People expect safe, sustainable, affordable dairy products,” Jacquier said.
With so many people leaving the business, Tanner worries about who would buy the quality herd he worked so hard to build.
“I have a nice young herd of cows,” he said.