Death of the dairy farmer?

By Matt Porter

February 25, 2013 Updated Feb 25, 2013 at 11:00 AM EDT

(WBNG Binghamton) Terry Ives has been working on his family's dairy farm for 35 years, it's a farm that's been in the family for 162 years.

But, Ives said keeping the farm going is becoming tougher each year.

"We should have enough income to make improvements all the time," Ives said, "And we've just been falling a little bit farther behind."

Terry Ives is just one of hundreds of small family farmers fading away in the Southern Tier.

In ten years, more than 100 dairy farms have disappeared in Chenango County alone.

Ives says feed costs have doubled or even tripled making up half his expenses.

The problem is that while expenses are doubling or tripling, milk prices have only gone up marginally.

Currently, the price of milk is based on futures on Wall Street. If milk becomes too low, the government does provide a percentage of the loss to farmers.

"Some want to control it with supply," Ives said, "The problem with supply management is it doesn't encourage growth, it doesn't encourage innovation."

It doesn't encourage Ives to replace his turn of the century equipment, some of which are more than 50 to 70 years old.

All this with Chobani yogurt just miles down the road, a company that's made almost a billion dollars with New York milk.

"More yogurt does not mean a better price," Ives said.

Milk prices are based on a mix of four classes.

Drinking milk is class one the most expensive, yogurt is class two.

Since farmers sell their milk as a blend more yogurt trims down the price.

But some farmers have found a silver lining with their new neighbor.

Jim Postma sold his own farm to Chobani.

"We were in Chobani's back yard," Postma said.

Postma declined to say how much he sold his farm for, but the deal allowed him to build a $3.5 million facility in New Berlin.

He added a few dozen cows to his original heard of just under 200, but the farm's real benefit is its technology and space to grow his own feed.

"I've got family that will will much rather come into a facility like this than my old facility," Postma said.

Computers help him find cows that are sick or may need help.

"They tell us when the cow's done, or if it flashes red, the cow hasn't given as much like she has yesterday or this morning," Postma said.

The efficiency has helped him pump almost twice as much milk without doubling his herd..

Still, even with the new technology, Postma said it's still a battle being a family farmer.

"You do a little bit better," he said, "And that keeps you going a little bit longer."

But most farmers can't afford any upgrades, leaving advocate and president of the Chenango County Farm Bureau Bradd Vickers asking why the government doesn't do more.

"We don't hesitate to put money into the banking industry, or the auto industry," Vickers said, "But we aren't putting money into the agricultural industry which is the nation's food supply."

A combined $344.7 million loss in milk production for Otsego, Chenango, and Delaware counties between 1999-2010 has soured Southern Tier dairies, according to USDA statistics.

Vickers said once a farm goes away, it rarely comes back.

"If that farm is sold for something other than agriculture, that's period end of sentence for our food supply," he said.

At the Ives farm, it's tough milking.

Ives said the reason he stays in go beyond the bottom line.

"It's the love of what I do," he said, "I've got a heritage here."

The sixth generation farmer remembers his grandfather's advice.

"Those that have the ability to serve their community," Ives said, "Have an obligation to do so."

But he said many farmers are advising their children against the profession.

"They've encouraged the kids to go to someplace else and get better paying jobs with less hours and more comfort," Ives said.

Without help, his historic farm could be history.

"If nothing changes, we will continue to become obscure," Ives said.