Dairy, beef folks want you...to eat more
Helping the local economy is as simple, and tasty, as grilling a few more steaks and burgers and eating a little more cheese and ice cream.
Two struggling rural agricultural industries-beef and dairy-were represented at the April 17 New York Mills Trade Show.
Browsers at the show had a taste of rural East Otter Tail County agriculture, courtesy of two young dairy princesses and a young beef cattle spokesperson.
From their friendly smiles you wouldn't know it, but in agribusiness, there hasn't been a whole lot to grin about.
"We're hoping it gets better," said Stephanie Hendrickx, optimistically. She is a East Otter Tail dairy princess and a St. Cloud State University freshman. She grew up on a dairy farm near Butler, and graduated from New York Mills High School. Dairy princesses were crowned earlier this month.
Stephanie and dairy royalty Tayla Roden, a "dairy farm daughter" from Henning, served cheese samples all day during the show. The cheese was produced locally, at the Bongard's Creameries plant in Perham.
Dairy prices are extremely low, acknowleged the two young ladies. For dairy farmers, 2009 was a "break even year," according to John Wold, an Underwood-area dairy farmer and spokesperson for local milk producers and the Midwest Dairy Association.
Beef producers tell story at NY Mills Trade Show
Meanwhile, representatives of the area's beef producers were all smiles as they served homemade beef meatballs at the New York Mills Trade Show.
Comparatively speaking, beef producers are probably a little better off than dairy farmers these days, said Myrna Scharpe, a Minnesota cattlewoman who greeted trade show goers April 17.
"We're not doing a whole lot better, but prices are up a bit," reported Scharpe, who said the Otter Tail, Becker and Wadena County areas have a high concentration of beef producers-even though their operations may not be as visible as those dairy barns, silos and black and white cows that dot the landscape.
Beef producers are always more optimistic with the warm weather.
"A lot of it depends on summer grilling," said Scharpe, adding that the increase in summer demand usually means higher prices for beef producers. "Beef is a desirable product...and good beef will always sell," she added.
NY Mills freshman teen spokesperson for beef
Also working the beef producers' booth were Karen White and her granddaughter Jenna White, a New York Mills 8th grader who is a teen spokesperson for area beef producers. They handed out beef recipes and greeted visitors-telling the story of beef production in the area.
The economic impact of the beef business is more than meets the eye. Gary and Don White and their families run a herd of about 75 grass-fed beef cattle in rural New York Mills. Their beef processing is done almost exclusively at the New York Mills locker plant and at the Perham cooperative meat plant.
Congressman Peterson predicts dairy "overhaul"
"Toughest time in the history of dairy," was the assessment by Congressman Collin Peterson, who spoke recently at a Perham Rotary Club meeting.
The condition of the industry may bring about sweeping changes in federal ag policy, said Peterson. Within the next year, Peterson predicted Congress would completely overhaul dairy policy.
At a recent regional dairy policy task force meeting, there was a unanimous view to "get rid" of the federal price support system, he said.
"If you would have told me that three years ago, I would have said you were crazy," said Peterson. "But the price supports are too low to do any good."
Dairy farmers losing $2 per day per cow
With dairy prices dropping from $19 a hundred-weight to below $12, dairy spokesman John Wold said farmers are losing money at a rate of $2 a day per cow.
"We're losing money whenever we go out to the barn and turn on the lights," said Wold.
In Califonia, milk is selling for as low as $9 a hundred-weight, said Wold. Meanwhile, New Zealand is exporting milk at a price of $7 per hundred-weight, said Peterson.
"We have to go back to more of a supply and demand model," said Wold, a fifth generation dairy producer who farms 680 acres and milks a 50-cow herd. With dairy prices at record-breaking lows, it is the corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa that is propping up his operation. "It is the cash crops that have supported most dairy farms," he added.
Most of Wold's milk is sold to Bongard's Creameries, which in Perham processes about two million pounds of milk a day-another example of the economic impact of agribusiness in the region.
Interestingly, Bongard's had an exceptional year after struggling for a couple previous years. Dairy farmers, on the other hand, have been down financially. The low milk prices paid to farmers probably helped Bongard's bottom line.
But Wold doesn't begrudge Bongard's for an improved profit margin.
"They need to make money and be successful. If they do well, it does eventually filter back to us," he added.
The surest way to help out dairy farmers, and beef producers as well, is quite simple: increase the demand.
"We need an economy where people go out and eat," said Wold. For example, if diners in Minneapolis didn't "just say no" to dessert, it would be ideal if they ordered a slice of cheesecake.
"We need consumption to go up," said Wold.
Fewer dairy farms
Though there is still a substantial number of dairy farms in the area, particularly along "the dairy belt" from Corliss to Butler Townships, north of New York Mills and Perham, the number of dairy farms is a fraction of what it used to be.
When asked how many dairy operations were remaining in her neighborhood, Henning area dairy royalty representative Tayla Roden could hardly think of one besides her family's farm.