Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund
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Defending the rights and broadening the freedoms of family farms and protecting
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Soured On Milk

By Angela Kennecke |

When you grab a gallon of milk or block of cheese out of the grocery store cooler, you probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about where it comes from.  But dairy farmers across the country, including those in KELOLAND, are struggling with the lowest price for raw milk in 40 years.  That has many dairy farms going under at record numbers and some desperate farmers have even taken their own lives. 

Just West of Milbank, a fifth generation dairy farm has soured on milk.  The sound of the auctioneer's call is the end of an era on the Bohn farm.

"My great-grandfather started this farm when he emigrated from Germany in 1898," dairy farmer Harlan Bohn said.

Bohn prides himself on his award-winning pedigree cattle, making the fact that he can no longer earn a living off them difficult to accept.

"It's a hard day, yeah. You spend a lifetime trying to build and make things better," Harlan said.

What makes it especially hard for Bohn is the fact that his son, Greg, returned to the family farm after getting a degree in dairy management from the University of Wisconsin.

"And I came home with the idea in mind to take over the farm someday and be the fifth generation here and I hope that still can happen, but not right now," Greg Bohn said.

"I still have plenty of equity left in my farm, but it's going backwards and at some point, you've got to make a decision to stop. We could borrow against that equity to keep going but I look down the road and prices don't look that strong to turn around," Harlan said.

While the price you pay at the store for a gallon of milk has dropped only slightly, the price Bohn is getting for raw milk has been cut in half.

"There's too much difference between what the consumer pays and what we get paid.  The middle seems to be taking too much," Greg said.

"Everyone is struggling; there's no doubt everyone is hurting. I've seen numbers out there where it's been projected 25 percent of dairymen will be out of business before the year is over with," Harlan said.

Larry Tande is with the National Holstein Association. Tande says dairy farmers need to figure out a way to control the supply of milk and reduce it when there's too much. And he'd like to see more government oversight when it comes to the milk processors and distributors.

"Those that advocate for free market, we've been there all our lives and look where we're at. Whether you like it or not, government's involved now.  Giive me a break," Tande said. 

Farmers from across the Midwest and as far away as Utah showed up at the auction, hoping to get a bargain on Bohn's cattle. Bard Korver made the trip from Northwest Iowa. Like Greg Bohn, he also went to school for dairy production and returned to the family farm. He's buying today, banking on higher prices in the future.

"It is little bit of a cash flow problem.  We put down some money, but hopefully these animals will get the return out of them later in life and be a good profit for us," Korver said.

But when farms like the Bohns' don't turn a profit, it affects Main Street.

"This farm, and a lot of farms in the area, they generate a lot of money for the community and we have a full time employee and he's had to find different work; anybody we buy feed from. Dairy farmers create so much money for their communities and the people in general around them that most people don't even realize it,"  Greg said.

And even though the Bohns are selling off their prized cattle today, they say dairy farming is in their blood and hope to get back to it when times get better.

"It's a business decision.  We'll pick up the pieces and go on and see what happens down the road. Things have to be fixed; something drastic needs to change. It's going take an act of Congress to fix this problem.  We have to change how we market milk down the road.  Can't have the roller coaster ride we've been through the last three of four years," Harlan said.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has introduced "The Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act of 2009," in Congress. The bill strengthens the price of milk paid to dairy farmers by requiring that all milk produced in the U.S. be priced using a national average cost of production. The Secretary of Agriculture would be required to reassess milk prices quarterly each year, ensuring the price roller-coaster ride Bohn referred to comes to an end.


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