It was a humid August night and the field next to the now defunct dairy barn was full of equipment and maybe a couple hundred people. An auction trailer was set up off to one side and to anyone driving by it might have looked like some sort of community festival, complete with hot dogs and drinks and baked goods. But this wasn’t a party or celebration; it was the end of an era.
The Robbins family had been farming this land and milking cows here for more than 40 years but debt and the inability to survive financially forced them to make the hardest decision in their lives – sell the farm equipment and the livestock. If that sale didn’t cover the debt they’d sell the barn, house and property too, Billie Jo Robbins said, admitting she was unsure what the future held for her family but that her faith in God’s plan for their lives was helping to lessen some of the anxiety.
She had taken a job at the local bank the year before to try to help the farm stay in business, but as milk prices dropped and operation costs rose, the family couldn’t plug the holes fast enough. Her husband, Paul, recently took a job at the local cheese making factory and the dream of passing the farm on to their two sons, Matthew and Kevin, is now gone.
The loss of a family identity and business is heartbreaking but even more heartbreaking is that the Robbins aren’t alone in their struggle and forced life changes.
“Local dairy farmers forced to auction off farm.”
It’s a headline that should be in more newspapers and on more news sites than it is because it is real and it is happening in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where the Robbins live, but also all across the country.
It isn’t only dairy farmers being forced to close their doors. Farmers of all types are being crushed under the blow of low product pricing, but dairy farms are being hit the hardest and according to various media outlets the hard hits are coming for a variety of reasons, one of those an oversupply of milk. Some question if the push for people to drink less dairy and more plant-based proteins is one reason the dairy industry is suffering, but this seems unlikely with Americans love of ice cream, pizza and milkshakes still going strong.
And even worse than the farms closing down are the suicides of farmers who collapsed mentally and emotionally under the weight of the pressure and the feeling of failure.
According to an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) site, one co-op had three out of 1,000 farmers commit suicide in three years, and while those stats might not seem alarming by quantity the fact they are happening at all when at one time they weren’t, is frightening.
Even here in Bradford County farmers are receiving letters from their co-ops, first with dismal news about the future of dairy prices and the information for suicide hotlines and how to find counselors.
Standing in that field the day of the Robbins’ auction one has to wonder who these buyers are. Local farmers? Corporate farmers? Farmers barely getting by themselves? Billie Jo wondered too and admitted it felt awkward selling their equipment to farmers who may be struggling the same way they were. She didn’t recognize many of the people there but others she knew because they were there for something more important than buying.
“Many came here simply to support us and that means so much,” Billie Jo said.
Farmers support each other, which is one reason many farms in this area of Pennsylvania are surviving at all.
Sitting in a truck, waiting for her husband, a farmer from Troy says she doesn’t know what the main reason for milk prices dropping so low is but she feels before long the Bradford County landscape won’t be dotted with very many family farms anymore. She and her husband, now in their 70s, own a dairy farm and can’t imagine doing anything else. They’ll keep farming as long as they can.
Knowing they aren’t alone in their heartache or their struggle helps the Robbins deal with their situation easier than some might. Their faith in God keeps them trusting that beauty will come from ashes.
To read more about the struggles of dairy farms in Pennsylvania you can visit my posts on The state of dairy farming in Northeast Pennsylvania: tangible struggles, palpable heartache and immeasurable joy and The Farm and Tell Me More About . . . Mark Bradley, Sayre Pa Dairy Farmer