'Physically And Mentally Draining': The Economic Hardships U.S. Dairy Farmers Face
Saturday, April 20, 2019
Penny Berg and her son, Mark Berg, tell NPR's Scott Simon about the current economic difficulties facing American dairy farmers.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
These are hard times for many Americans. For American dairy farmers, even a bit more. Milk prices are now just two-thirds what they were five years ago. Cows are making more milk, even as plant-based substitutes like soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and others have captured more of the market. Mark Berg, a dairy farmer in Pine Island, Minn., who's in business with his parents, Tom and Penny, posted a video on Facebook to try to explain some of the brutal economics farmers now confront.
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MARK BERG: I love these fricking cows more than anything else. I don't want to do anything else, you know? And then, you know, I don't - I'm not financially stable enough to take over a farm. And you can't take over a business that's going to fail, you know? And this is like a guaranteed failure.
SIMON: It's been seen almost half a million times all over the world. Mark Berg and his mother, Penny Berg, join us now. I want to thank you both very much for being with us.
M BERG: Thank you.
PENNY BERG: Thank you.
SIMON: Penny Berg, let me begin with you. How much money do you make in the dairy business today, as opposed to five years ago?
P BERG: Well, what Tom and I have always done is we've always been able to put money into our savings. Like, if we sell a cow or if we sell a calf or, like, we get checks, you know, at the beginning of the year. Well, with the milk prices being down for the last four years, as of right now, our savings has dwindled to zero. And so every check - it all has to go directly into our checking account to make ends meet. And after four years, it's not making ends meet.
SIMON: Well, give us, if you could, please, some idea of some of the hard decisions you have to make just to get by week to week, month to month.
P BERG: One of the hardest decisions for us is we're trying to decide which of our animals will have to be sold. We'll probably have to sell around at least 20. And the feed purchase prices are very high at this time, too, so we'll have to sell animals so we have enough to feed the ones we do have.
SIMON: Can you give us an idea of how hard you work - what a day is like for you?
P BERG: There are mornings that I'm up as early as 3:30. We feed calves before we start our morning milking around 6 o'clock. This morning, I was up, for example, at 10 to 4 and will probably get in the house tonight, I would say, 9:30 or so. Of course, we stop and have lunch together. And if I'm not outside helping Mark and Tom, I'm inside doing book work or trying to do some laundry, if that's possible.
SIMON: Do you ever have a day off?
P BERG: Well, we try to have at least a milking off, and that usually ends up for Tom and me on a Sunday night. And if Mark has a date with his girlfriend or something, we try to give him time off, too. It is hard. I mean, we have very, very good high school young men that come and help us after they're done at school. That helps the work load some, but it's still there.
SIMON: Mark Berg, what's it like for you to see your mother work this hard - and your father?
M BERG: You know, to watch mom and dad work that hard, I mean, it's - if I had to describe it in a word, it'd be unfair - just because, you know, both mom and him are getting older, and they work harder now than they ever have in their whole life. And it's not only physically draining, but it's mentally draining.
SIMON: Why did you take the step of sharing your circumstances and worries on Facebook?
M BERG: I guess what - maybe what brought me to post it was that I don't like to see the frustration in my family like it is. And I - and it's because this is just a hard business to be in currently for everyone. And I mostly posted it to just inform people who I know personally. And it ended up reaching a global scale.
SIMON: Penny Berg, hard for you to hear your son talk like that?
P BERG: Yeah, it is. It's hard for the whole family. I'm glad he did what he did, though, because the responses have - that he's gotten back have been overwhelming. I mean, it's - there's farmers that have been my husband and I's age that have said, thank you, Mark, for doing this because we couldn't have. And I feel the same way. I could've never done that. Farmers are proud people, and they're not going to tell somebody that they're having rough times. So I think what Mark did was exceptional.
SIMON: Mark Berg, do you ever think about going into another line of work?
M BERG: At this point, I guess I've never - I don't see myself doing another line of work just because of the fact that, you know, I love taking care of the animals. And I know for a fact that now I'm at the point in my life where if cows were not a part of my day, I wouldn't be happy with what I was doing.
SIMON: Penny Berg, you see a way out?
P BERG: I kind of have the same feelings that Mark does. I guess the way out would be to have the milk prices increase. But I can't see myself with an empty barn. I've - I love the animals, and I can't see myself do anything else. I just can't.
SIMON: Penny Berg, Mark Berg - mother and son dairy farmers in Minnesota - thank you so much for being with us.
M BERG: Thank you.
P BERG: Thank you for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org