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Hard times have dairy farmers calling help lines

With milk selling for less than it cost to produce this year, a lot more dairy farmers turned to NY FarmNet, the Ithaca-based not-for-profit agency that provides free financial consulting.
Image: Joe Tidd
Joe Tidd works in the milking parlor at his farm in Owasco, N.Y. Tidd said he turned to FarmNet over the years for advice on running his up to 100-cow operation.Kevin Rivoli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Huck Heintz has spent a busy year providing free financial consulting to dairy farmers in upstate New York.

With milk selling for less than it cost to produce this year, a lot more dairy farmers turned to NY FarmNet, the Ithaca-based not-for-profit agency that employs Heintz. Others called agricultural help lines with their personal and professional woes.

"When you can't pay the bills and you have to borrow money and you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, there's a lot of emotional stress," said Patty Beyer, a partner with Moserdale Dairy in Copenhagen, N.Y. They milk 350 cows and have sought help from FarmNet in the past. "There's a whole bunch of other things that go with it aside from just milking the cows."

NY FarmNet saw a 50 percent increase in help requests over the past year. A group helping Midwest farmers said it expects to end the year with an increase of up to 17 percent.

The demand reflects the dire financial straits many dairy farmers are in this year. Many say their lines of credit are tapped or they can no longer afford monthly payments for equipment bought when milk prices were higher. Their debt problems have been made worse by the falling value of cattle as farmers sold to slaughter herds they couldn't afford to feed.

Many dairy farmers had increased production in good times to meet growing export demand. When that demand dried up with the global recession, they were left with too much milk on their hands and prices collapsed.

It was not unusual earlier this year for farmers to sell milk for three-quarters of the price it cost to produce. FarmNet Executive Director Ed Staehr said many dairy farmers in New York lost about $1,000 for every cow over the last year.

FarmNet, which is funded primarily by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets but also relies on other public and private grants and sponsorships, serves any type of farmer and others in agriculture. Callers can talk to one of 50 consultants who specialize in either financial or personal problems. It has taken about 6,000 requests for help this year.

Requests also were up at Sowing the Seeds of Hope, a behavioral health network covering Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. There are typically about 23,000 calls a year made to help lines in the seven states, but administrators expect to handle up to 27,000 calls by the end of this year, said Michael Rosmann, executive director of Iowa-based AgriWellness Inc., which administers the network.

Rosmann attributes troubles in dairy and pork production for the bulk of the bump. For instance, in the nation's Dairyland, calls to the Wisconsin Farm Center help line were up 25 percent earlier this year. More callers reported high stress levels too.

"It makes the necessity of telephone help lines all the more clear," Rosmann said.

FarmNet has a stable of part-time financial consultants who worked in farming or the financial industry. They can suggest cash-flow plans, spreading out loan payments or working out solutions with a lender. Some farmers who ramped up production when times were good might need to cull some less productive cows or leave some land fallow.

Sometimes the hardest part is starting a dialogue with the farmer.

Heintz, a longtime dairy farmer and former loan analyst, will stop by the farm and say "let's have a look at your cows." He'll walk around with the farmer to talk about heifers and tractors and then get down to the numbers.

"It's my job to try to find out what you can do to hang on, if you will," Heintz said.

Joe Tidd, who milks up to 100 cows in the Finger Lakes at Melrose Farms, has called Heintz over the years to talk business. He likes the low-key approach FarmNet takes. "They're not pushy," he said.

Staehr said most farmers request financial help, though personal consultants have been busy too, especially since financial and personal problems can be tightly intertwined.

Louis Bodnar, who milks 85 cows in the Lewis County town of Turin, worked with a financial counselor this year — his worst in 35 years. He also met several times with FarmNet personal consultant Judy Flint when his marriage broke up this year. Bodnar said it helped just to have someone listen to him.

"I don't know where else I would have turned to," he said.

In this photo taken Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009, dairy farmer Joe Tidd, center, and his son Ned work in the milking parlor at their farm in Owasco, N.Y.Kevin Rivoli / FR60349 AP

The good news for dairy farmers is that prices are rebounding a bit. But for many farmers the damage is already done.

Beyer said they are still not covering costs.

Staehr noted that there are still stresses in the near term: taxes are due at the end of the year and spring will bring new capital costs.

"We aren't even close to being out of the woods," Tidd said.