Multigenerational dairy business suffers in West Weber; same across Utah

Apr 16 2012 - 6:09am

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Cows feed at a dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Along with their owners, calves at a West Weber dairy farm face an uncertain future. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Ron Gibson watches his cows be milked. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
A cow is milked at the farm near 4700 West and 1200 North. Dairy farms in Utah are dwindling because costs are rising and profits are falling. Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, says every Utah dairy farm is family owned, and some employ several generations of families. How to save them, he says, “is the million-dollar, or billion-dollar question.”  (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Ben Gibson plays with a calf at his family’s dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Ben Gibson cleans a cow before milking at his family’s dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Cows feed at a dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Cows feed at a dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Along with their owners, calves at a West Weber dairy farm face an uncertain future. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Ron Gibson watches his cows be milked. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
A cow is milked at the farm near 4700 West and 1200 North. Dairy farms in Utah are dwindling because costs are rising and profits are falling. Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, says every Utah dairy farm is family owned, and some employ several generations of families. How to save them, he says, “is the million-dollar, or billion-dollar question.”  (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Ben Gibson plays with a calf at his family’s dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Ben Gibson cleans a cow before milking at his family’s dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Cows feed at a dairy farm in West Weber recently. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)

WEST WEBER -- Ron Gibson grew up to become a fifth-generation dairy farmer, and he's raising the sixth generation now.

He'll be raising and milking his cows with his sons as long as he can -- but the way the industry has been going, it has been a stressful and uncertain time for him and many others.

The cost of keeping the operation going keeps growing, but the market-determined price of the milk hasn't.

"It doesn't matter how well I take care of my cows ... if I put in (a full day's work) or two hours of work," he said, watching his son check on the pregnant cows at his West Weber farm, near 4700 West and 1200 North.

At the end of the day, much of his future is out of his hands.

The recession didn't help, said Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.

The value of the dollar dropped, making American dairy products much more expensive in global markets, he said.

In 1975, Gibson's father was earning $13.50 per hundredweight of milk.

In 2009, Gibson was selling for $10.50. It was a dark year for a lot of dairy farmers, and after two years of some recovery, prices are dropping again.

Dairy farmers' profit margins shrink or disappear when milk prices fall and production costs rise. Milk prices for farmers have dropped again this year compared to last year, while the cost of feed remains high, according to a February report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It costs Gibson $8.50 to feed one of his 1,500 cows and 1,300 calves each day. In 2006, it cost only $3.50.

Besides expensive feed, rising oil prices also mean higher production costs for dairy farmers. The costs of gasoline and diesel have climbed every month since Jan. 1, according to AAA.

In the February report, the USDA predicted that higher costs with smaller returns throughout 2012 will translate to herd reductions.

Gibson refuses the notion. With the outside fixed costs staying where they are, all he can do is what he's best at: producing milk and hoping it keeps the bills and his 26 employees paid.

Some dairy farmers in Utah have not been able to keep going.

Owners of a fifth-generation dairy farm in Sanpete County decided to end its dairy production this year and instead focus on turkeys and growing crops.

The number of dairies in the state has dropped every year since 1970, when there were close to 3,800.

Only about 250 dairy farms are left today. As recently as 2003, there were nearly three times that many, Parker said.

The loss is personal, too.

Parker said every Utah dairy farm is family-owned, and some employ several generations of families.

How to save the dairy farmers "is the million-dollar, or billion-dollar, question," he said.

"The reality is, it's very difficult right now, and there's just not a good answer locally or nationally in terms of policy that can answer these difficult questions," Parker said.

However, he added, it does help that Congress is taking a look at the 80-year-old legislation governing the milk market to determine if it's still adequately meeting the farmers' needs.

Traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange determine the value of his milk, Gibson said.

He said he feels like he's being controlled, "like the tail wagging the dog," by a system in which millionaires speculate on his product without actually buying it.

He would rather see supply and demand dictate the market, though he knows there is no easy answer to the problems.

While not a solution, it helps when people buy locally produced milk.

Last year, the state set up an Agricultural Sustainability Task Force, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.

In a report submitted in November, the task force recommended creating incentives for restaurants, stores, schools and public-sector agencies to buy Utah products first, among other suggestions to keep the Utah agriculture industry sustainable.

In a blog post on his state website, Bell warned against relying too heavily on outside resources, citing the nation's dependency on foreign oil as an example.

"Please, let's not depend on another Hugo Chavez for our milk," Bell wrote.

Gibson's 14-year-old son, Ben, follows him around the farm, talking excitedly about milking the cows and the right grains to feed them, and then runs over to the pregnant ones to gently stroke their hair.

Ben loves the farm.

Gibson only hopes he will still have one to give him.

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