Massachusetts dairy farmers are in the midst of a make-or-break season. As they struggle to survive, next month will be crucial. Most will face a wrenching choice: whether to plant the corn they use to feed their cows or whether to leave the industry altogether.
As we reported in a recent series, the state's dairy farmers are all dealing with the dual economic pressures of the declining milk prices and the rising costs of feed, fuel, and fertilizer. It's so dire that the Commissioner of Agriculture may soon declare an economic emergency in the industry.
In the meantime, the family that runs Massachusetts' largest dairy farm is trying to stay in business by selling a third of their cows. WBUR's Fred Thys went to the recent auction and has this report.
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AUCTIONEER: Now a quarter! 18 and 1/4, now half! 18 1/4, now half! Sold her at 18 1/4.
FRED THYS: The Aragis have owned Pine Island Farm, in Sheffield, since 1962, and they have never, ever had to do something like this before. Last Friday, they sold 614 of their heiffers. Those are the cows that have yet to give birth. Some of the pregnant cows were selling for 1800 dollars or so. Still, as he watched the auction, Louis Aragi said: "If I was buying them, I would bid on them a few more times." They were disappointing prices, given the work that the Aragis had put into raising their cows.
LOUIS ARAGI: It hurts a little bit to see it. We put a lot of time and money into these animals, and I'm just hopin' it's not going to be discount sale day. We want to get what we put into these things.
THYS: The Aragis had put up a big tent on their farm, the kind you would have at a wedding or a garden party, to hold the auction. They were hoping for a full crowd, but half the chairs were empty. Out on the driveway, the man who normally comes in to file the cows' hooves was directing traffic for buyers. Louis Aragi was out on the driveway, too, following the auction from a distance.
ARAGI: Milk prices are really bad, and it just doesn't justify, so this is why we're sellin' today. Gets bills paid.
THYS: Aragi said he couldn't sleep at night, knowing they owed people money. Milk prices have been low in part because the price of milk is fixed by the price of milk powder contracts out West, where dairy producers locked into long-term low prices with a New Zealand company. It's recently come to light that some dry milk processors under-reported the prices that they were getting, which in turn depressed the price of milk for farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating.
AUCTIONEER: 996. Due November 2. Ooh! That's about as powerful a heifer as we've seen today.
THYS: Milk prices are rising again, and they're expected to be pretty high by next fall. But that doesn't help the Aragis now. They have to plant the corn they feed their cows next month.
ARAGI: We need to get crops planted, and there's really no way we can do it without generatin' some income somewhere, so this is another reason we want to get some animals sold, and less to feed.
THYS: The auction has brought the Aragis 767-thousand dollars, just enough, Louis Aragi says, to pay last year's bills. Many of the cows went to Wisconsin. In a corner of the big auction tent, Chico Aragi, Louis' father, was straddling one of the metal chairs. He was quite forlorn. He did not want to talk. In one day, the farm he had spent a lifetime building was losing more than a third of its cows, but the Aragis have saved their farm, at least this year.
AUCTIONEER: 16, 1/4, 16 1/4, and a half! 75! Sold for 1650, 1650 to number 24.
This program aired on April 24, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.