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Dairy Farms Fading from NE Pennsylvania Landscape

June 11, 2014
 
 

Dairy farms continue to disappear from the region's rural landscape. Lackawanna, Luzerne, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties Pennsylvania lost more than 210 dairy operations in the decade ending in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's newly released five-year census.

"A lot of farmers have thrown in the towel," said James Dunn, Ph.D., an agricultural economist at Penn State University who specializes in dairy studies. "It's a tough business."

The reasons for the exodus range from soaring operating expenses and unpredictable milk payments to an aging farm population, loss of attraction to younger people and startup costs herding would-be farmers into other lines of work.

"Farming is a great way of life if you can operate it as a business that can support that life," said Alan Zepp, risk program manager for the Center for Dairy Excellence, a state Department of Agriculture promotional agency.

Dairying has become an insolvent life for some farmers.

Fertilizer costs exploded by 192 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to the USDA census. Fuel prices rose by 148 percent over the same period, and livestock feed expenses advanced by 139 percent.

During the same 10-year span, average state dairy farmers' margins increased by about 20 percent, Penn State data indicate.

"Any good businessman would have closed his business looking at those numbers," said Gina Severcool Getts, executive director of the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce in Tunkhannock. "You can only operate so long on a red line."

Joe Davitt confronted a red line for years before selling his 50 cows at an auction in March 2012, during a dispute with his dairy cooperative. He was a dairy farmer for 21 years.

"I was tired of trying to find a way to make it," said Davitt, 44, who now works in the state Correctional Institution at Waymart's power plant. "It was time to stop fighting."

Davitt and thousands of dairy farmers were ambushed when the milk market collapsed in late 2008 from overproduction and a crater in exports. Milk payments to farmers failed to keep pace with their expenses for most of 2009, forcing mass flight from the business.

Many who stayed took on debt to stay afloat.

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