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December 10, 2013

Area dairy producers meet, discuss strategy

By Jessica Reynolds Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Most people in New York City have no idea that there are dairy farms in upstate New York, much less struggling ones, a speaker said Monday at a meeting of dairy farmers at the Center for Agricultural Development & Entrepreneurship in Oneonta.

Lauren Melodia is founder of Milk Not Jails, a nonprofit organization that seeks to connect upstate dairy farmers looking to sell their milk for higher prices with restaurants, cafes, or institutions like schools in New York City. In short, she said, dairy farmers have a commodity that they need a higher price for, and New Yorkers have a demand for milk. Melodia led Monday’s discussion with an in-depth look at her research and findings.

“People want locally produced food and cannot find it in New York City,” Melodia said. “We have a finger on the pulse of a lot of buyers down there, so we figured let’s really sell New York in New York City.”

According to CADE’s website, its mission is “to increase the number and diversity of successful farm enterprises and related businesses in New York.” CADE Director Rebecca Morgan said the goal is to increase the economic viability of the producer, in this case, dairy farmers.

In a recent survey by CADE, 96 percent of local farmers were unhappy with the price they received per hundredweight of milk. Morgan said this statistic isn’t surprising. According to the 100-plus dairy farmers who were interviewed at fairs and Farm Bureau meetings since July, the major frustrations in making ends meet are the costs of feed, fuel and transportation, and Chobani’s Class II prices.

Despite these frustrations, Morgan said the national trend is on the farmer’s side. With increasing interest in regional food production and shopping locally, many people are interested in the Catskill region’s products, and particularly its milk.

According to Melodia, there are two main avenues that could be taken to tap into this demand and help local farmers make more profit. One option would be for farmers to form a cooperative, pool their milk, and go in together in the creation of a Catskill or Upstate New York brand of milk. The other option would be for independent farmers to get connected individually with buyers in New York City.

Melodia said one of the first steps in looking for solutions is to assess local resources. Unfortunately, she said dairy processing plants that are willing to participate are few and far between. Melodia presented a map at the meeting showing the local processing plants, yet she said the majority of these plants were either not interested in negotiating and collaborating with farmers or did not have adequate room or resources to accommodate other farmers’ products.

Hudson Valley Fresh was presented by Melodia as an example of a successful partnership between farmers. A cooperative of 14 farms based in the Hudson Valley that pool, process, market and distribute their milk, Hudson Valley Fresh has seen 25 percent growth in sales each year since its founding in 2006.

Another example of farmer collaboration was Cayuga Milk Ingredients LLC. To save farmers’ hauling costs, farmers and local organizations in Cayuga County came together to open a processing plant, which will open in August 2014.

Availability of trucking is another resource that must be taken into account, Melodia said. Lucky Dog Food Hub in Hamden is a transportation and delivery company that will transport farmers’ products into the city for a fee of 15 percent of gross product value.

Melodia said a third resource to keep in mind is the availability of farms with their own processing capabilities. Cowbella is a family-owned and operated farm in Jefferson that makes its own butter and yogurt and distributes them in New York City. Shannon Mason, general manager for Cowbella Dairy Products, said the family is willing to let other farmers come into their facility, test out their processing capabilities and do some product development.

According to Mason, it takes the whole family to get everything done on the farm, from production to marketing. She and many other farmers at the meeting said it would be extremely difficult to promote their products in New York City when so much has to be done at home.

“It’s not easy to leave the farm when you are the one working on your farm,” Mason said.

Melodia and Morgan said Milk Not Jails and CADE want to be a support system for the farmers, helping promote and directly connect them with interested buyers.

Despite the vast opportunity in New York City, Morgan said the main problems are the lack of processing and getting the farmers on board with a specific direction to take, whether it’s working together or individual product development.

“It is just a bear of a market,” Morgan said. “If an option means more money per hundredweight for the farmer, why not get on board?”