South Florida dairy farmers fight for survival amidst low milk prices

OKEECHOBEE — A year ago this week dairy farmers around Lake Okeechobee were emerging from their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and beginning to assess the damage done by the category three storm. Farm workers arrived at dairies to find flooded fields, barns that had suffered massive amounts of structural damage, and they would soon learn that Irma had also mangled critical rail lines in south Florida that would lead to feed shortages.

Colleen C. Larson, Regional Dairy Extension Agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), said that even after the initial destruction, problems lingered at many dairies for several months.

University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)

“They had production losses initially,” explained Ms. Larson, “but they also had cows that had ended up having ongoing health problems. When the barns were damaged, there were sometimes pieces of metal that fell to the ground that may have been ingested by the cows and then that caused health problems later on. Calves that were born in those conditions also took a while to thrive. They weren’t born under optimal conditions.”

A few months after Irma, the dairy industry would be rocked again when activists with the animal rights group ARM released undercover footage they claimed showed workers abusing cattle and the poor conditions where the animals were kept.

While the undercover investigation led to the arrest of two dairy employees who were sentenced on animal cruelty charges earlier this year, the footage of dairy farms in disrepair appeared to have been taken directly after Irma. Investigators with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported that the deficiencies shown in the videos had already been addressed by the dairy owners even before they had officially received the complaint from ARM.

“The industry’s initial reaction to the ARM videos was to make sure cows were being taken care of the way people have been trained to,” said Ms. Larson. “Making sure that the training and protocols were being followed through by employees and everyone on the farm, and by and large it was already being done. Another change that has taken place in the south Florida dairy industry since Irma and the ARM videos is that many calves are being sent out of state or to other parts of the state to be raised where they have better weather conditions and more affordable feed.” Even before Irma hit, the dairy industry in south Florida was already facing adversity due to low milk prices nationwide which have persisted for the last three years and made turning a profit difficult for farms. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the average price of milk in July has fallen to $15.40 per hundredweight, down from $17.20 per hundredweight this time last year and $20.10 per hundredweight in 2011. A hundredweight is 100 pounds of milk.

Milk overproduction across the globe and the uncertainty around current ongoing trade disputes between the Trump administration and other nations involving agriculture products have kept prices stagnant.

In August the industry was given some good news when the USDA announced it was planning to buy $50 million in U.S. milk and give that milk to food banks though The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The USDA stated it will buy the milk with the purpose of encouraging “the continued domestic consumption of these products by diverting them from the normal channels of trade and commerce.”

And although it may provide some short-term relief, it isn’t expected to be a solution to the problems facing the struggling industry.

“I think there are a lot of challenges to overcome,” said Ms. Larson of the dairy industry woes. “I hope that people will continue to enjoy milk and other dairy products. As long as they are producing a wholesome, healthy product the industry should have a future here. I, for one, would rather have my milk come from here in Florida than across the country. I’m hopeful the south Florida dairies can overcome the environmental and economic challenges, and thrive in the future.”

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