ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — 2018 marked the fourth straight year of declining milk prices.
The prices were below the break-even cost on almost every farm, creating emotional stress and feelings of despair and hopelessness for many small farmers.
"Farming is your way of life. It's your livelihood, and the home where you live," said Keith Turner, the feed division manager at the Rockingham Cooperative. "The fear of losing your farm, and losing your business, there's just no greater challenge, I believe."
Some issues are beyond small farmers' control.
"The trade war definitely had an impact on milk exports to China, but even beyond that, it's a supply and demand situation," said Turner.
Amid the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China, tariffs have hit dairy farmers hard. The Trump administration rolled out a massive bailout last year for affected farmers, including $4.7 billion in payments to corn, cotton, soybean, dairy, pork and sorghum farmers.
Following decades in which dairy farming provided a more reliable source of income than other fluctuating crop prices, a surplus of milk in the U.S. has made it often cost more to produce than the wholesale profits it brings in.
As things get more difficult, farmers make more sacrifices. Turner said he works with multiple farmers who live below the federal poverty income level.
"We have many farms here, farm families, that live on $15,000 a year or less," said Turner.
Mental health issues affect some farmers' work.
"You lose your drive, and by not being focused, you tend to take longer to do simple tasks," Turner said.
He also explained that as farmers spend more time working, they have less time to spend with their families, leading to feelings of isolation.
2019 may offer some hope for dairy farmers.
"By the end of 2019, we may see an increase of 75 cents per hundredweight of milk; it still will not get most farms to milk costs break even," Turner said.
There are possible solutions, such as diversification programs, rather than simply depending on milk prices for revenue.
"We actually help distressed and struggling farmers do business plans, we teach strategic planning and the strategic planning process," said Turner.
WHSV is speaking with local farmers affected by these issues later this week.