ORISKANY, N.Y.--More than 30 dairy farmers filed into Cornell Cooperative Extension in Oriskany Wednesday, ready to discuss the future of their flailing industry.
Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente spoke about holding a forum in March at his State of the County address. Wednesday night, he asked local farmers about the biggest issues their businesses face. His goal is to form the Oneida County Dairy Farmers Sustainability Plan, a blueprint to guide local officials in the best ways to advocate for their farmers on the state and national stage.
"My commitment isn't just to listen and say 'well here's what we can't do or whatever,'" Picente said. "With one voice, go to Albany, go to Washington and I'm willing to do that and I want to do that and make the case for what is needed."
The participants discussed introducing county tax breaks for farmers, creating programs to train better-prepared agricultural workers, and subsidizing farmers when milk prices are low.
"I think the biggest problem everybody's got here when milk stalls, right now they're not getting paid for what the product's really worth," one farmer said.
The farmers also gave Picente ideas for lobbying; they discussed co-op and hauling fees that have become too burdensome to pay and still turn a profit.
"It's not just the prices the government sets, they don't pay the price the government sets," Gary Tuthill, a farmer said of dairy cooperatives. "I get a letter once a month and $1,120 dollars are taken out of my check to balance their books. $1,223 dollars are taken out of my check to balance their books. Well, nobody balances my books, and so they're paying us less than the government even thinks."
Milk prices are at a ten-year low, meaning more of Oneida County's 227 dairy farms could face closure in the next year. Local farmers say the stress of losing everything is taking its toll.
"They actually sent a suicide hotline telephone number with some of the milk checks a few months ago, because farmers are committing suicide," Tuthill said. "You have all the stress of the financial, trying to make things go. It's not good."
For local farmers in distress, NY FarmNet can help. The organization, funded through the state's Department of Agriculture, offers both financial and mental health counseling, often sending representatives in pairs to area farms.
"Farmers need mental health services, we get the mental health services," Patrick Lamb, a licensed social worker through NY FarmNet said. "Otherwise, we help them look at their economic situation and find whether they're viable as a business or whether we help them in the transition getting out."
NY FarmNet employees will respond to most calls within 24 hours. If a mental health crisis is present, representatives will respond with help immediately. Farmers in distress are encouraged to call 1-800-547-FARM (3267).
"What's changed in the last 20 years is farmers are a lot more open to using mental health services," Lamb said.
Local agricultural officials said forums like Wednesday night's help farmers feel solidarity.
"I think we're very lucky to have that support and the farmers know it," Mary Beth McEwen, Cornell Cooperative Extension's executive director said. "They have a network of support amongst each other. Things like this help us to create awareness so that we can get the help that the farmers need."