If the federal government is to remain in the business of setting the price for milk paid to dairy farmers, the disturbing trend of losing these critical farmers will continue. Along with this loss, we will lose the rural working landscape and positive contributions their businesses provide local communities.

Fred Hough, a Sussex County, New Jersey dairy farmer, laments that his family is managing the last dairy farm on the short 14 mile stretch between Sussex and Newton. In the early 1950’s there were 22 working dairy farms, including the well-known Ideal Farms, then considered the largest Guernsey cow dairy in the world.

Analyzing the regional numbers, the Mid-Atlantic States had 175,185 dairy farms in the mid-1900s; in 2007 that number dropped to 15,881. New England was once home to 27,780 farms that produced milk in 1950; that declined to 2,235 farms in 2007. There was a similar decline of dairy farms in the South-East from 44,246 in 1950 to 4,017 in 2007. These regions each lost an average of 90 percent of their dairy operations over that time period and this trend continues today.

What happened in that short 60 years?

The dairy industry, like any industry, had to endure marketplace changes. Farms are now larger, more efficient and are home to more cows; milk production per cow also has increased.

The challenges for family operations to deal with the burdens of keeping their farms profitable; the stress of doing business in a high cost environment; the chore of having to work long hours 365 days a year – all proved too unforgiving to tolerate for many farmers. Many families did not have the next generation willing to take over the responsibility of managing the farm.

In regions of the United States where there are significant development pressures, farm families choose to sell their land mostly because they want to rid their balance sheets from the burdensome debt that accumulates with the expenses related to the times when the cost to produce milk is higher than the price received from the market. New England as a region lost more than 60% of its farmland in the past 60 years.

If we look at the New England and Mid-Atlantic States, home to nearly 69 million people--23 percent of the population of the United States -- it makes you wonder why so many dairy farmers so close to this market would call it quits. Especially, since milk is a healthy food and a key source of nutrition.

One reason for the market decline is that people are drinking less milk. The per capita consumption of milk was 45 gallons in 1945, the peak of individual consumption, which declined to 27 gallons in 1980 and is around 20 gallons today. Cheese and yogurt are bright spots among dairy products, with the consumption increasing significantly in the past several decades.

Another dynamic that contributes to the loss of dairy farmers is that dairy farmers are price takers not price makers. In other words, farmers can’t sell their milk based on the cost of production but must rely on a Federal Milk Marketing Order system that originated in the 1930’s to set the price. In the past decade, dairy farmers have experienced cyclical milk prices that have gone under production cost and have reached historic lows.

Consumers have not experienced the extreme price fluctuation of milk that dairy farmers have. It is time for Congress to either authorize a way to let regions set an adequate price for milk paid to farmers or change the methodology of setting the price, or get out of the way and let market dynamics with supportive policies allow for innovation and growth. This will provide a new generation of farmer optimism to continue the great dairy tradition, especially in regions where it is in decline today. At the same time, consumers will benefit from the continued access to reasonably priced fresh milk, produced by farmers close by.

American agricultural policy should give special consideration to supportive laws and regulations focusing on keeping and growing agriculture, especially the dairy industry, in close proximity to populated areas. As Congress considers updating farm policy through the reauthorizing of the 2012 Farm Bill, it has the opportunity to build a stronger policy foundation for American agriculture –all agriculture.

Meanwhile, we can support the hard working dairy farmers by drinking more milk.

Charles Kuperus, a Sussex Borough farmer, served as NJ’s Secretary of Agriculture from 2001-2008. charliekuperus.com