Dairy Farmers Plead For USDA Aid Amid Drought

California is the agricultural capital of the U.S., per Wall Street Journal, and dairy farming is its biggest sector — worth $20 billion annually to the state's economy. Unfortunately, California dairy farmers have been plagued by challenges over the last decade. For one thing, national milk consumption has been on a precipitous downswing since 1975 (down 42% overall), owing, initially to Americans consuming more sugar-sweetened beverages, and more recently, to Americans turning increasingly to plant-based "milks", per USDA's Economic Research Service. In addition, a rising tide of animal cruelty claims against dairy farmers appears to have eaten into U.S. demand for dairy, as The New York Times reported in December 2020. 

However, the greatest challenge dairy farmers have been facing in the last couple of years may be the significant uptick in the cost of feeding dairy cows. Some of this has been brought about as a result of general supply chain madness that's been trending since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But adding insult to injury is a severe lack of rain over the past two growing seasons (per WSJ). What has been termed a "historic drought" by organic dairy farm and industry activist, Straus Family Creamery, has diminished the supply of crops needed to feed dairy cows, raised the price of feed by as much as 50%, and otherwise increased dairy farm operating costs (via press release). Now, Straus has formed a coalition of dairy farmers to plead with the USDA for aid.

Drought has left some dairy farmers with an unfortunate choice

"Farmers have survived through drought before," according to Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, who fears "this time is different" (via press release). To wit, some dairy farmers have already been forced to severely contract, if not shut down altogether, per Wall Street Journal. Certified organic creamery Straus Family Creamery fears things may only get worse as we head into 2023, especially within the organic dairy farming sector. The potential choice for many dairy farmers may come down to operating at a loss or ceasing operating altogether. 

Straus has raised concerns that the continuing drought and inflationary conditions will fully undermine organic dairy farming and cause not only a milk supply crisis, but economic destabilization within the rural community. With that in mind, Straus recently formed the Western Organic Dairy Farming Crisis Coalition, comprised of organic dairy farmers and their supporters, to lobby for "immediate emergency drought relief assistance for organic dairy farmers."

Although the USDA provides some level of financial assistance, it is not enough, according to the coalition. Straus, on behalf of the coalition, is getting the message out to both federal and state politicians, as well as the USDA and other agricultural agencies — via meetings and even a petition on Change.org. And that message is that without immediate financial relief, it will impact both dairy farmers and consumers seeking organic food options