The plummeting price of milk that's bringing relief to consumers is also strangling the state's dairy farmers. As consumers bargain-hunt for milk under $2.50 a gallon, farmers are trucking cattle to slaughter, selling land for cash and trying to renegotiate loans with banks. Several dozen dairy farms in North Carolina are expected to go under this year, accelerating a 50-year trend of the dwindling dairy farm.
"It's really dead serious now," said Pete Strickland, who has raised Holstein cows on 300 acres for more than more 50 years in Nash County. "If milk goes back to $5 a gallon by fall, we don't need to hear [any complaints] from the consumer, because they're putting us out of business."
After wholesale milk prices in the Southeast peaked at $2.01 a gallon last year, prices have been in a free fall this year since December -- the result of a milk glut brought on by a variety of factors -- and this spring prices are expected to hit the lowest point in three decades. North Carolina farmers are now getting about a $1 for a gallon.
Prices are expected to rebound later this year, as farmers slaughter their livestock to bring down milk supplies, but the turnaround won't start until this summer. That could be too late for some farmers.
"The farmers just don't have enough cash flow to pay the bills," said Lewis Harris, owner of Walnut Grove Auction and Realty, a cattle auction house in Roebuck, S.C., that arranges sales of entire herds. "They're selling assets -- that is, dairy cattle -- to continue operating."
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