FOWLER, Calif. — The long economic boom, fueled by easy credit that allowed people to spend money they did not have, led to a huge oversupply of cars, houses and shopping malls, as recent months have made clear. Now, add one more item to the list: an oversupply of cows.
And it turns out that shutting down the milk supply is not as easy as closing an automobile assembly line.
As a breakneck expansion in the global dairy industry turns to bust, Roger Van Groningen must deal with the consequences. In a warehouse that his company runs here, 8 to 20 trucks pull up every day to unload milk powder. Bags of the stuff — surplus that nobody will buy, at least not at a price the dairy industry regards as acceptable — are unloaded and stacked into towering rows that nearly fill the warehouse.
Mr. Van Groningen’s company does not own the surplus milk powder, but merely stores it for the new owners: the taxpayers of the United States. To date, the government has agreed to buy about $91 million worth of milk powder.
“The thing is, they are going to produce it because they have to milk the cows,” Mr. Van Groningen said. “It’s like a river. It keeps coming.” In addition, dairy farmers are all too aware that, unlike industrial machinery, cows cannot be turned off and stored until economic conditions improve; they must be fed and cared for, at continuing expense.
The bags of milk powder represent a startling reversal of fortune for the dairy industry, which flourished in recent years in part because of a growing appetite for milk, cheese, ice cream and pizza in places like Mexico, Egypt and Indonesia. Many of those countries were benefiting from a global economic boom led by free-spending consumers in the United States.
As American dairy farmers increased their shipments of powdered milk, cheese and other dairy ingredients to foreign markets, their incomes rose. And the demand surge helped drive up the price of milk for American families. The national average for whole milk peaked at $3.89 a gallon in July, up from an average of $3.20 a gallon in 2006.
But now, demand for dairy products is stalling amid a global economic slowdown and credit crisis, even as supplies have increased. The result is a glut of milk — and its assorted byproducts, like milk powder, butter and whey proteins — that has led to a precipitous drop in prices.
The price of powdered skim milk, used in infant formula, dairy products and processed foods, has fallen to roughly 80 cents a pound today from about $2.20 in mid-2007. Other dairy products have declined as well. Whole milk at grocers has not declined as rapidly as wholesale powdered milk, but it has dropped to $3.67 a gallon, down nearly 6 percent from the peak.
While consumers are undoubtedly pleased by the lower prices, dairy farmers are struggling.
“Everything was going great,” said Joaquin Contente, a farmer in Hanford, Calif. “The product was moving. Then this financial crisis came along and shoot, the whole thing came to a halt.”
Logic might suggest that dairy farmers would simply sell some of their cows to a hamburger plant to cut the milk supply and raise prices. Indeed, the dairy industry has a cooperative effort under way to cull the herd.
But farmers are reluctant to do that if they expect a demand recovery, since rebuilding a herd can take years. The culling program is relatively small, and at least so far, most farmers are holding onto their cows.
“People don’t want to panic,” said Brian W. Gould, an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin, adding that farmers were receiving $20 for 100 pounds of raw milk just a few months ago. The price is expected to drop to about $14 for 100 pounds of raw milk in coming months. “It is unclear as to whether this will be a short-term or long-term market correction. It all depends on how long it takes the U.S. economy to recover,” he said.
Other agricultural sectors are also struggling with a slowdown in demand from foreign buyers because of the global recession and an increase in the value of the dollar, which has made American exports more expensive abroad. The Agriculture Department is expecting steep declines in exports of corn, wheat, soybeans and pork.
But while the government has price-support programs for about two dozen agricultural products, so far milk powder is the only commodity that has sunk low enough to start the flow of government dollars. Some expect that taxpayers will soon be buying blocks of cheese, too, given the plunging price.
"Not enough peaks to offset the valleys."
Government price supports provide a price floor for agricultural products as a way of keeping farmers afloat during hard times and ensuring an adequate food supply.
The Agriculture Department has committed to buying 111.6 million pounds of milk powder at 80 cents a pound, for roughly $91 million, which includes some handling fees. Before October, the last time the government bought milk powder was in June 2006, and it was eventually used in government nutrition programs, given away as animal feed or sold on the open market, said Steve Gill, director of commodity operations for the department.
He said the agency has not decided what to do with the cache of milk powder in California.
Some critics of farm subsidies argue that price support programs are antiquated and allow farmers to continue producing even when the economics make no sense, as taxpayers will always buy up the excess production.
“They don’t want to downsize or respond to the market signal. They want to keep producing,” said Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research organization that has long been critical of the government’s farm policy. “Once you get in a jam like this, it becomes our collective problem.”
The government purchases come after what the department calls a “euphoric period of record prices and booming exports” for the American dairy industry. Since 2003, dairy exports have increased from $1 billion a year to about $4 billion this year, with exports of powdered milk increasing sixfold during that period. Milk powder is an attractive product to export because it does not require refrigeration, has a long shelf life and can be used to make numerous beverages and foods.
Much of the increase was caused by increased demand in developing countries, where a growing middle class replaced starch in their diets with protein sources like meat and dairy products. Some Asian countries had little history of eating dairy products but were introduced to milk and mild cheeses by government nutrition programs or by restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.
In China, for instance, per-person dairy consumption nearly doubled in just five years, to 63 pounds in 2007 from 33 pounds in 2002 (though it remains far below the per-capita consumption in the United States of about 580 pounds), according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council. The growth translates into the need for nearly 40 billion pounds more milk each year, roughly equal to California’s annual milk production.
In addition to the increased demand, exports from the American dairy industry benefited from a relatively weak dollar and tight global supplies. For instance, droughts reduced milk production in New Zealand and Australia, two major dairy exporters, allowing American suppliers to fill the gaps.
American dairy shipments soared to places like Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The biggest market, however, was Mexico, where imports from America increased to $853 million in 2007 from $258 million in 2003, according to the Agriculture Department.
But now, global demand has stagnated amid high prices and economic uncertainty just as the dollar has strengthened and milk production in New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, Australia, has bounced back. The continuing scandal involving melamine contamination of dairy products in China is expected to further diminish demand.
“In some of these countries where dairy hasn’t been a big part of their diet, this is where we are seeing people pull back,” said Deborah Perkins, managing director of the food and agribusiness research group at Rabobank International.
Several dairy exporters say they remain bullish on their long-term prospects, given the barely tapped markets in the developing world. Until then, dairy farmers say, they are braced for a period of low milk prices even as feed and other costs remain relatively high.
Arthur Machado, who milks cows on the outskirts of Fresno, said he sold more than half his herd in 2006, the last time prices collapsed. Now, with prices plummeting again, he said he is trying to sell the remainder of his herd to another dairy farmer.
“The business isn’t what it was in the ’70s, when I started,” he said. “There are not enough peaks to offset the valleys anymore.”
Once the herd is sold, Mr. Machado said, he plans to focus on less volatile commodities, like almonds and grapes. But it is not so easy to get out of the dairy business. Just as with automobiles and homes, there is simply too much inventory on the dairy cow market.
“Right now, there are no buyers,” he said. “When it’s on the upswing, we’ll sell. Until then, we’ll struggle through.”