For Art Schaap and his son Ryan, farming in the arid climate of Clovis, N.M., comes with its own set of challenges: water, regulations and fading milk prices, just to name a few. With milk prices dipping to the lowest point in five years, Art’s putting the pencil to paper in order to make his operation cash flow.
“In 2017, I feel like we're going to be able to make some good money again,” says Art.
That’s because his short-term plan is to eliminate debt, and to do so, he needed to sell two of his five dairies. With two conventional dairies and one organic, milking 4,500 cows total, he says the only way to survive this bump in the road is to get rid of the debt that can weigh an operation down. That type of focus is something Art learned from his dad.
“When you're given something, you just don't appreciate it as much as if you have to pay for it,” explains Art.
He says his dad didn’t give him any cows in order to start his own operation. It’s something Art and his three brothers had to work for and earn.
"My dad was real good about giving us the opportunity to buy in,” says Art. “We were able to find little dairies available in the area and then he basically just let us grow on our own. The harder you worked the more you were able to grow.”
While Art’s roots run deep in New Mexico, the family transplanted to the area nearly 40 years ago from Southern California.
“We looked at Northern California, we looked at Idaho, and we chose New Mexico because it was an arid climate like California, and we were able to have open lots.”
Art says it was the right move for the family at the time, but for those looking to relocate today, the grass isn't always greener somewhere else.
"I would not chase the milk price, because the milk price is going to change,” advises Art. “When we came to New Mexico, we were probably getting $2 more than Wisconsin. Then, Wisconsin got $2 more than we got. And now, I think we're back level with them. No matter where you live, you have an opportunity. You just have to look for it.”
Looking for those opportunities and pushing the envelope is what Art does best.
“The dairy farmers are like the shock absorber in this market,” says Art. “We either make money or we're losing money. So, we’re trying to change our model to being in industries like organic or the processing business to where we can actually go to the consumer, because the closer you get to the consumer, the more money you're going to make.”
Challenging traditional parts of the dairy industry is also where he thrives and one reason he shifted a dairy to organic production in 2008.
“You have contracts with organic, and that's one place where the conventional can learn--from organics,” says Art. “You have contracts. You only deliver to the market what it wants. You don't overdeliver."
Since Art’s main organic buyer, Organic Valley, only purchases what it needs, Schaap had leftover milk at his organic dairy and starting searching for a home for the product. He approached a local cheese plant, hoping to sell his products there.
“They told me if you want us to make cheese for you, then you have to buy into our company, so I did," Art says. "I now own 50%."
That move and competition caught the eye of Organic Valley. Now, Organic Valley buys all of Art’s organic milk, something he wanted in the first place.
“Selling the cheese is a whole lot harder than making the cheese,” says Art. “And marketing is very important."
One challenge with milking organic cows in the arid climate of New Mexico is finding enough feed, especially considering the restraints on wells, water production and drought.
“We've learned how to farm with about half the water we used to have,” says Art. “We put solar wells on these farms, because one of the things about wells in this area, we're always going to have water here, but it's the quantity of water, since the production of the wells are down. So, we're using solar wells and we're pumping the water in the daytime, to lagoons, and then in the evening they rest, they fill back up. "
Learning to grow feed during the crippling drought that recently plagued the state challenged Art to find new ways to raise crops.
"We had a drought three years ago where we only had 3 to 4 inches of rain for two years,” he says. “So, one thing we started doing is we started chopping weeds. And after we tested the weeds, we found out they tested almost as good as alfalfa.”
Art says kosher weed makes great feed, allowing him to save around 50 cents per head. The drought hasn't been the only weather challenge Art’s family faced lately.
“We've had snow, and we've had wind, and we've had all those things happen, but we've never had them together and 80 mile-per-hour winds,” he says.
The freak winter storm hit in late December, preventing the Schaaps from shipping milk out for 48 hours. It took two months to get the cows back to normal production and nearly three months to hit levels they saw before the storm hit.
With a blizzard and low milk prices, some producers look to cut corners. During the drought, Art started purchasing lower quality feed, but this year, his plan is different.
“We’re going to try to feed better quality feed,” says Art. “We're going to try to get more milk, and even if we have to milk less cows, we'll do that, but make sure that every animal is producing to its full potential.”
It's the pursuit of finding new ventures, on a road where challenges become obstacles, not roadblocks, that's giving the Art a positive outlook for 2016.
"I would say 2015 was survival,” says Art. “I’m going to say (my outlook for) 2016, is optimistic."