By Susan Redden
MONETT, Mo. —
Nearly 90 workers will lose their jobs at a milk processing plant here that will close later this year because not enough milk is being produced locally to supply the operation.
Spokesmen for the dairy industry say the job loss is the reflection of a larger problem. Missouri — particularly Southwest Missouri — used to be one of the top milk producing regions in the nation.
But Missouri farmers have gone out of business because they can no longer afford to operate because of a combination of forces including high feed prices and the recent drought.
Because of the loss of local dairy farms, the Dairy Farmers of America processing plant was losing money because it could not run at full volume, said Larry Purdom, a member of the DFA board of directors.
“We were having to go out and get about half of it from western Kansas or Texas,” he said.
The DFA plant processes the milk and has a contract to supply cheese curd to Schreiber Foods in Monett.
“At the time we started with Schreiber’s we had enough milk, but that’s really changed in the last two years,” Purdom said. “Most of the dairy farms were in Southwest Missouri, which was hit really hard by the drought. A lot of dairy farmers have just given up and sold out.”
The DFA plant was leasing space from Schrieber Foods, which employs 120 workers, but that will be the only impact on Schreiber in Monett, said Andrew Tobisch, director of communications for the firm based in Green Bay, Wis.
He said the closing will not affect jobs at the Monett plant or other Schrieber plants in the region.
Monica Massey, vice president of communications and member relations at DFA, described workers at the plant as “skilled and hardworking.” She said plant officials expect some will be hired by Schrieber Foods and others will be offered jobs at DFA plants and other food companies in the region.
“They in no way contributed to the decision to close,” she said. “We’ll be working with them and with local and state labor departments to help them end up with other jobs.”
Purdom said the state lost 186 dairy farms to the drought and that the group most hard hit was “young farmers with a debt load.”
“That’s sad, because that’s the future of the industry,” he said.
The Monett plant is not the only one importing milk to Missouri, according to Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association. He said 60 percent of all the milk used in Missouri comes from outside the state.
He said the loss of dairy farms is part of a long-term trend that has escalated in recent years because of high feed prices and the drought.
Drennan said his groups and others for years have been sounding warnings about the decline of the dairy industry. He said some have stayed in farming but switched to raising beef. He said others have given up farming because of higher feed costs, the difficulty of hiring labor or of getting health insurance for the family unless one spouse is working off the farm.
“The average-aged dairy farmer in Missouri is 58, and if the kids aren’t interested in the business, it makes it easy to sell out.”
The trend became a tipping point in recent years, Purdom said, because of the drought and the high cost of feed, particularly corn. He blamed demand from the ethanol industry for the higher corn prices.
“And when corn got so high, a lot of farmers plowed up their alfalfa and planted corn,” he said. “Then we got the drought and alfalfa prices doubled. It’s a ripple effect. When you don’t have farms and cows, you don’t have the milk production, the raw product for processing plants like the one in Monett.”
Drennan said the problem is not just a Missouri problem, but was accentuated here. Both he and Purdom said other states are doing more than Missouri to help the dairy industry.
“The only thing Missouri has done is the governor’s well drilling problem during the drought. But agriculture is economic development,” he said.
Lawmakers have looked for a way to help dairy farming and will continue to do so this session, said state Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, chairman of the House Agriculture Policy Committee.
“They tried to give them a tax credit in 2009, but there wasn’t enough money,” Reiboldt said. “We still want to find them some help.”
Reiboldt was a dairy farmer for 21 years.
“I’d certainly rather have my dairy products come from a family farm in Missouri than from out of state,” he said.
By the numbers
In 1975, Missouri had 21,000 dairy farms with 302,000 dairy cows. Today, there are about 2,000 farms and 93,000 cows, according to the Missouri Dairy Association.