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.
"People are still paying off debt from 2009," Dunn said.
Davitt remortgaged his home near Waymart, sold timber, hay and stone from his 145-acre Wayne County farm and did handyman work in his spare time to generate income.
He accumulated more than $60,000 in debt before halting production on a farm that had produced milk for more than 85 years through three generations of his family.
"I still miss my cows," Mr. Davitt said as he repaired a hay wagon. "I'm not milking, but I'm still farming."
He sells hay and raises calves and heifer cows for sale.
"I have to figure out a way to make money from this," Davitt said while strolling through his barn. "Within two years, the farm debt will be gone."
Others had no options about their exits.
"A lot of farmers got farther and farther behind," said Ed Pruss, an educator at Penn State Cooperative Extension in Honesdale. "Finally they said, 'I can't do it anymore,' or the bank said, 'You can't do it anymore.' It's really sad."
The industry was more stable before the 1996 Farm Act phased out dairy price supports, Zepp said.
"It truly reflects the market," he said. "The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and not everyone adapts to that."
The erratic pattern of milk-price payments, which hit all-time highs this year, and the commitment and effort dairy farming requires often hurts the occupation's cross-generational attraction.
"Some people in the younger generation don't want to go into farming," said Donna LaBar, executive director of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, in Honesdale. "It's a seven-day-a-week job with very little pay sometimes."
The risks of steep debt, failure and dairy farming's work obligations alienate younger people, Getts said.
"The legacy that was there in inheriting the farm is not the same. The appeal is gone," she said. "People don't have to work five to nine. They can get a nine-to-five job."
The expenses associated with starting a dairy operation also prevent many would-be farmers from entering the field unless they take over family operations.
"You can't afford to get in," said Will Keating, a dairy farmer near Mount Cobb. "By the time you buy the land and the equipment and the cattle, you are $3 (million) or $4 million in debt."
The fading allure of agricultural life surfaces in an aging population among U.S. farmers and state dairy operators.
The average age of a U.S. farmer in 2012 was 58.3 years, up from 55.3 in 2002, according to the USDA census. The average age of a state dairy farmer increased from 46 in 2008 to 47 in 2012, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence.
"Farmers are getting older, and the younger generation doesn't want to work," said Jason Canjar, who operates a dairy farm near Elmhurst. "You've got to farm for the love of it. It's not for the money."
Most regional farm money, though, is tied up in equipment and real estate. The disappearance of scores of dairy operations transforms massive tracts of former agricultural property.
"There's not another farmer waiting to take over that land," Dr. Dunn said.
Some Wayne County farmers who have quit dairying sell most of their property for housing development, Pruss said.
"They save 2 acres for a retirement home," he said. "The other 98 acres were sold, and many times they were subdivided for homes."
In multiple locations regionally, expansive former dairy property stands vacant.
Other farms have been converted to niche and specialty agricultural uses or beef cattle operations, said Lou Hawley, a Montrose-area farmer who sold his milking herd in 2010.
"A lot of it becomes more open space and hunting property," he said.
Hawley, 62, exited the field soon after the most-severe segment of the dairy crisis. He converted to raising beef cattle after securing a natural gas development lease for his property.
"When you start to receive some gas income, you can make some other choices," he said. "One is, the cows can go. That makes it a little easier."
Mr. Hawley also faced some health-related issues before he quit milking and admits he no longer wants to put in 70- to 90-hour work weeks with a herd of milking cows.
"We are blessed with enough income that the pressure is off," he said. "I don't miss the stress of dairy. A lot of days at four o'clock, I look around and say, 'This is enough.' "
The region's loss of dairy farms from 2002 to 2012 ranged from a 63 percent drop in Luzerne County to a 37 percent downturn in Susquehanna County, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
From 2002 to 2012:
• Susquehanna County's dairy farm total dropped from 213 to 135.
• Wayne County's total dipped from 157 to 92.
• Wyoming County declined from 59 to 34.
• Lackawanna County dropped from 40 to 20.
• Luzerne County went from 40 to 15.
There are only a handful of dairy farms in Monroe and Pike counties.
Pennsylvania had 7,929 dairy farms, down 9 percent from 2002. Nationally, the total decreased over the decade by 30 percent, to 64,098.
Pennsylvania is the nation's fifth-largest milk producer. State dairy farms generate about 10.5 billion pounds of milk annually, which is equivalent to about 900 million gallons.
The dairy industry and related activity generates $6 billion in annual state economic activity and more than $243 million in regional commerce, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence.