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Marketplace Makes a Hard Life Even Harder


Dairy farmers deal with a marketplace aligned against the life they love

Patrick Hansen, Local 2980, inspects a milk tank on a family farm. He is one of Minnesota’s 16 dairy inspectors.

As a state inspector, Patrick Hansen is an enforcer first. But as someone whose family still milks 145 cows, Hansen understands deeply when farmers agonize over whether they should keep going in a brutal industry.
“Costs are so high, none of these guys is making any money,” Hansen says. “I was over at a farm in Goodhue County. Guy damn near broke down cry¬ing. He doesn’t know how he’s going to hang on.”

In 2009, for every 100 pounds of milk their cows produced, farmers were paid, on average, less than $13. Two years earlier, they were getting more than $19. Pile on higher costs for feed, fuel and fertilizer, and the typical farmer is losing at least $3 for every 100 pounds of milk. Tight credit makes banks reluctant to lend what farmers need to tide them over. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Hansen says.

The grass can be greener

Minnesota has lost 10,000 dairy farms since Hansen became an inspector. There are now fewer than 5,000. For a lot of farmers, however, selling the herd only makes sense, Hansen says.

“This one guy, he’s over 60 years old, the kids don’t want the place, he’s losing money right now, he’s got back problems. I don’t know why he’s milking cows. If I was him, I told him, I’d sell the cows right then and there. He’s paid his dues….

“Most of the time, they find something else to do. They raise steers or whatever, they still farm the land. I’ll stop in and see them and they go, ‘Why the hell didn’t you make me quit a couple of years ago?’

“They find out there’s more to life than milking cows.”

Adapted from an article that originally ran in the January/February issue of Council 5's Stepping Up.

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