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New Federal Ag Data Highlights Continued Struggle for the Dairy Industry

By Catherine Wheeler

The number of farms, both across the country and in New York State, is continuing to shrink, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2022 Census of Agriculture.

The ag census, which was released this week, is reported every five years. It collects data from producers on demographics, economics and land use. It's used to paint a picture of America's ag industry.

Across the U.S., the number of farms went down by 7%.

But it was even worse in New York. The state lost about 2,800 farms, or 9%, between 2017 and 2022.

A big slice of that was in the dairy industry. While dairy is the largest sector of state agriculture, the ag census says about 1,900 dairy farms in New York shuttered over a five-year period.

Christopher Wolf, an agricultural economics professor at Cornell University, says the numbers don’t surprise him. It’s been happening for decades.

"I don't know how much it stood out to me," he said. "I think most people were probably surprised maybe by the amount of consolidation that happened, particularly in the dairy industry." 

Wolf is referring to the fact that while the number of dairy farms decreased, the number of milk cows in New York increased by nearly 3,000. 

He says dairy farms consolidate because there’s a high fixed cost for milking cows. The equipment is expensive.

"You can spread those fixed costs over more units, so it doesn't cost twice as much to build the milking facilities for 1,000 cows as it does to build them for 500 cows," Wolf said. 

That consolidation chips away at the economies of agricultural communities, like parts of the North Country, he said. St. Lawrence County is the third largest milk-producing county in the state.

"New York has got all these rural areas where the dairy farms are a major driver of the local economies," Wolf said. "So if they exit, it has not only implications for the farm family but for the local feed mill,  for veterinarians and for all these other kinds of support industries, is that then go away."

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