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New York News

Farmer's Death Highlights Dairy Farmers' Desperation

By Susan Barnett

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wamc/local-wamc-881846.mp3

Hudson Valley, NY – The dairy industry is a tight knit one, and the news of a tragedy on a Columbia County farm has spread across the country. Farmers say it's a wake up call and a demand for action to help an industry on the verge of disaster.

Dean Pierson milked over 50 cows a day on the farm he inherited from his father in Copake. On Thursday, police say he put a note on the door telling whoever found it not to come in, but to call the police. Then, police say, he shot all of his milk cows, then turned the gun on himself. Pierson spared 50 Heifers and calves, animals that would not suffer if he wasn't there to milk them twice a day.

Mark McKusick, a dairy farmer in Maine, says this tragic story isn't unique.

"It's all across the country," McKusick says. "These people have reached desperate measures and it's all they know and they counteract it with another desperate measure. It's very sad."

NY FarmNet, a hotline for distressed farmers, also reports higher suicide rates among farmers this year.

McKusick and his neighbors made headlines when they were told they'd be dropped from the Hood company's organic milk route. There are lawsuits and controversy - but meanwhile they've been looking for another way to market their milk. Their experiment in independent milk marketing begins today.

"We finally got our Moo Milk in the carton yesterday," McKusick says. "It should hit the store shelves today or tomorrow. We're on our way there."

He says Moo Milk could eventually appear on store shelves throughout the Northeast. It's an aspect of business that dairy farmers didn't expect to have to deal with, but prices that have dropped to historic lows have created unprecedented financial pressures.

Pierson's widow has told a local newspaper she'd like to keep the farm going. Her neighbors showed up over the weekend to bury the cows and police said Pierson had been having personal issues.

But Erica Marczak, a part time vegetable and poultry farmer, says the economy is draining the dairy farmers dry and she wonders why the milk industry is making profits while the farmers are going broke. Those farmers help sustain the entire agricultural community. And for more than a year, it's cost them more to produce milk than they've made by selling it.

In the fall of 2009, hearings were held in Vermont, where Sen. Bernie Sanders maintained that anti-trust investigations should be held because a couple of western milk processors and dairy cooperatives control more than 80 percent of the fluid milk in the country - and they control the prices.

The American Dairy Association is the promotion and education arm of the dairy industry. Its job is to get more people to use dairy products, and spokesperson Melissa Osgood says they're expanding their partnerships with places like McDonalds and Domino's Pizza. Domino's recently introduced a new produce that could help dairy farmers.

"It's a series of pizzas that actually contain 40 percent more cheese," she said. "It's really helping to bring up the cheese category which, in return, will help bring up prices for farmers."

Meanwhile, funeral services for Dean Pierson are scheduled for Wednesday.