Just north of Mecklenburg, Iredell County, with 11,700 head, is the state's largest dairy producing county. Second is Randolph County with 4,100 head. North Carolina ranks 30th nationally, producing 1,164 million pounds of milk in 2001. However, even though the population of North Carolina is increasing and the consumption of milk is increasing, North Carolina's dairy industry is eroding.
"We've lost dairy farms in Mooresville, and in the southern Iredell area, a spill-over effect from Mecklenburg," says Ken Vaughn, extension director for Iredell County for the Cooperative Extension. "The northern part of our county is still pretty rural and will probably stay that way for some time."
Rex Bell, whose farm is in Wayside in Iredell County, has been a dairyman since 1980. His family has been in the business since 1940, although recently Bell's siblings and cousins have sold their farms. He says, "There's a real good chance that of the 400 dairymen in North Carolina now, there'll be 300 or less within two years. The economics are just not there."
Bell says the price he received for milk in April 2003 was less than the amount he received in 1980, and that is in actual dollar amount. "When we first opened our dairy in 1980, we were getting $13 to $14 per hundred pounds of milk. Now it's $11.30 per hundred pounds of milk. That's less than a $1 a gallon. Most farmers can have a negative cash flow for a period of time and borrow money against their land. But not for years. They will just go out of business."
Andy Gray, a dairyman from Stony Point, also in Iredell County, agrees. "The dairy farmer is really suffering right now," he says. "Two years ago we were getting 30 percent more for our milk."
Keep in mind that North Carolina is a deficit area -- that is, an area that consumes more milk than can be produced in the state. Demand is increasing while supply is decreasing. Yet the farmer is making less than he did 23 years ago. Gray continues, "The whole southeast imports from the midwest, Texas, and New Mexico."
These imports, even with their added freight costs, have had the effect of keeping prices at our local dairies down. The pricing of milk is complex. Dairy farmers belong to cooperatives that ship the product to processing plants. The processing plant then sells the processed milk to retail vendors.
Even through local dairy farmers are getting less for their product, the cost of a gallon of milk locally has remained relatively the same. Says Bell, "The retailers try to hold the line and try to sell milk for just under $3 a gallon. Kraft (Foods) and Dean Foods Co. (milk processors) have increased their profits from 2001 to 2002 by 100 percent."
Gray says a Federal milk loss assistance program makes up some of the difference but not enough. During the 1990s, the North Carolina Milk Commission, a program developed to protect the North Carolina dairy farmer, was dissolved. Price assistance helps, but NC dairy farmers need a fair pricing structure in order to survive. Vaughn says, "(Wholesale) milk has severely depressed prices because the stores and processors are not paying. The unfortunate part is the dairyman has got to have a place to move milk. You can hold out for a few days, but with perishable products, you can't do that for long."
Not only are the prices depressed, but also North Carolina farmers have been hit hard by the weather. Years of drought made it difficult to grow the corn necessary to feed the cows. This year the rain has not allowed the farmers to plant.
"We have had four summers of extreme drought," says Bell. "Now a lot of continuous rain. We can't make hay. We can't plant corn. Usually by now I've planted the bottom land, but that has been underwater. This year I will probably be planting in the first of June what I normally plant first of April. Alfalfa and hay crops should have made the first cut in May, then the second in June. We are going to be extremely late with the second cut and that's going to make it difficult to feed the cows."
The Vermont Milk Commission has two bills in front of their legislature to confront low milk prices. Both involve tax relief for dairy farmers. Also in Vermont, more dairy farmers are making the transition to organic farms since organic dairy producers have not had the same severe price drops as conventional farmers.
Freshness is one factor in maintaining a local milk supply. If North Carolina continues to lose dairy farms and continues to ship milk in from farms as far away as New Mexico, the fresh taste of milk will be affected. Another factor is green space. Bell, who has served on the Iredell County Farmland Preservation Committee, says, "People are wanting some green space, but the problem is the dairy farmers are not able to stay in business. The cheapest way for the public to have local green space is to pay a fair market price for milk."
How can consumers help? Gray says, "Drink more milk -- lots of milk."
Eaters' Digest On May 17 at the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Terry Labonte and the #5 Kellogg's "Got milk?" racing team have entered into a friendly side wager that will benefit Cornelius Elementary School. For every pit stop that the #5 team completes in less than 17 seconds during the race, the Southeast Dairy Association will donate a cash prize of $100 to the Cornelius school. The funds will help with education initiatives.