Erie County farmers struggle as milk prices remain low

WATTSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Dean and Suzanne Curtis paid a price in sweat, 14- and 16-hour workdays, scraped knuckles and vacations they never took.

But together, the Venango Township couple built something. They own 515 acres, a herd of 150 dairy cows and the buildings and equipment needed to produce thousands of gallon of milk each year.

In 2009, they were just months from having all of it paid off.

Then came the recession and a historic tumble in the price of milk.

Today, two refinanced mortgages and seven years of unreliable milk prices later, the idea of being debt-free seems like a distant memory, said Dean Curtis, who has been farming for 50 of his 64 years.

Curtis said he and his wife have far less debt than many dairy farmers, but worry that some fellow farmers might not survive a pattern of low prices that has persisted through 2015 and most of this year.

Few places in Pennsylvania have seen a more dramatic decline than Erie County, where the number of dairy farms fell 57 percent between 2002 and 2012, sliding from 170 to just 73. That’s according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which provides the most recent numbers available.

The loss of dairy farms in other parts of the country has been more gradual, but substantial. In 2002, Pennsylvania was home to 9,629 dairy farms. Ten years later, that number had fallen to 7,829 farms. In Crawford County, 217 dairy farms became 181.