A common scene in Yates County — the bucolic setting of a vibrant green pasture dotted by dairy cattle contentedly grazing after their morning milking — is being threatened, and along with it, the survival of the sustainable family dairy farm. Why? Because decades of changes in calculating milk prices are squeezing small producers out of the picture.
The price of milk is one of the most complicated economic factors in modern agriculture. In the 1920s, federal law allowed small, local dairy cooperatives (co-ops) to be formed. Member farmers bargained together with creameries and larger processors for a price they both could live with. Farm failures in The Great Depression and the collapse of farm production in some areas led to federal New Deal price controls to protect both farmers and food supplies across the nation.
However, that model of cooperation and control has been corrupted. Government deregulation efforts since the 1980s have gradually dismantled the protective market controls. And some cooperatives have used their protected status to grow and swallow their smaller colleagues. One, in particular, has become a literal corporate giant. Dairy Farmers of America Inc. (DFA) was formed in the late 90s by the merger of four Midwestern co-ops, later acquiring five farther afield, including, Valley of Virginia Milk Producers Association, California Cooperative Creamery, Black Hills Milk Producers, and Dairylea here in New York. In the 2010s, they acquired Kemps of St. Paul, Minn., and its subsidiaries from HP Hood; Oakhurst, and DairiConcepts; as well as Cumberland Dairy, a processor of ultra-pasteurized dairy products.