The Real Reason Dairy Farmers In California Are Struggling

While COVID-19 negatively impacted many kinds of food products, experts noted that dairy fared better than average. According to Dairy Foods, the consumption of yogurt, cheese, ice cream, and other milk-based products soared during 2020 and it looks like Americans have found a new appreciation for this food group. While the forecasts for this agricultural sector looks incredibly promising, producers in certain parts of the country might have a harder time keeping their industries going.

According to Wall Street Journal, California dairy farmers currently face an uphill battle, as severe droughts and water shortages have thrown a wrench into their businesses. Dairy farming makes up the largest form of farming in the state, but with water shortages now a part of life, many have a hard time keeping their farms afloat and have either switched to growing crops or given up farming altogether. For those that have soldiered on, eastern portions of the state have fared better but now regular droughts have the potential to unseat this industry. Experts have also predicted that this winter should be dryer than usual, further worsening this already critical situation.

A worsening scenario for California dairy farmers

A shortage of water might only be the start of even larger problems for anyone in California's dairy industry. According to Al Jazeera, 50 out of 58 California counties faced drought conditions this summer, leading to water access issues, in addition to an overall water shortage. Due to the state's particular conservation laws, ranchers and farmers have had an uphill battle in securing resources to water their cows.

Intense amounts of water also need to go into the production of alfalfa, a major portion of cow feed, further straining water supply issues. This translates to higher feed prices. Fortunately, demand for dairy products remains high, which "help[s] offset farmers' costs," per The Wall Street Journal. But for the dairy farmers struggling to even get their products to market, the economic pain of increased overhead costs for things like fuel and feed remains. On top of it all, the industry's endemic problems could convince potential young farmers to abandon dairy altogether in favor of more lucrative agricultural fields.

However, some farmers remain optimistic, including Cody Baker, who told Al Jazeera that he is "confident about the future of the industry in California." But others, like David Lemstra, don't paint such a rosy picture. Lemstra said he saw the writing on the wall ten years ago, and fled California for South Dakota, where his diary farm now supplies a cheese manufacturer. It looks like only time — and the future climate — can tell what happens to the California dairy industry.