The question is, how many farms are in similar situation?
An auction is set for November 17 to sell off 7500 milking cows from the Artesia Dairy southeast of Corcoran. The auction at Overland Stockyards in Hanford also includes rolling stock from the dairy owned by Hans Reitsma - a Dutch immigrant who died at his own hand in late 2008.
Reitsma’s death caused a stir in the close knit central California dairy industry in part because Hans left behind a widow and seven young children.
Family-owned dairy farmers- many with Dutch or Portuguese heritage - shared their neighbor’s pain also because the disastrous and sudden downturn in milk prices called into question all of their survival.
The collapse in dairy prices in 2008 came just as a global financial crisis affected banks.
Like Reitsma most dairymen had borrowed millions to finance their operations and word spread that Reitsma had been pressured by his bank to sell the operation he had built up so successfully over the years. He reportedly left behind two suicide notes - one for his family and another for his banker say several news accounts.
Reitsma’s widow Roxanne -raised from a large Portuguese immigrant family- bravely tried to run the 2330 acre farm on Highway 43 at Rd 136 by herself for months. But then this sad saga got sadder.
A Tulare County court this spring authorized the dairy be placed in receivership after the lender claimed the operation continued to lose value.
The receiver - a kind of court-appointed trustee has been operating the 7500 head dairy since then says Gary Honeycutt who manages the dairy for the receiver JVan Curen.
In recent weeks the receiver has posted a state WARN notice that the 70 workers at the big Tulare County ranch will be laid off as of November 28. A WARN notice requires employers to give affected employees and other state and local representatives notice 60 days in advance of a plant closing or mass layoff. It triggers help for the affected employees.
The action to sell off the cows is needed to protect the asset says Honeycutt. “The collateral here at the Artesia Dairy has been deteriorating” figures Honeycutt . The sale will not affect a future sale of the property and homestead itself. Honeycutt says the property sale is being handled by area realtors Schuil & Associates but that no sale on the property is pending.
Roxanne and the children no longer live on the ranch having moved this summer.
Today,Roxanne focuses on her children and asks not to be quoted directly in any article. But if you ask her she would tell you she does not agree anyone has the right to sell off their cows and rolling stock.
In the past year Roxanne has been quoted helping bring her husband’s story to light in several national and international news stories highlighting Hans immigration to the US in 1988 in pursuit of the American dream.
According to one Dutch news report his dream was to build a dairy of his own with 700 cows - an unheard of herd size in his native Netherlands.
Twenty years later in 2008 the 37 year-old dairyman had built up two modern dairies in California with 18,000 cows and some 86 employees.
But Tulare County’s multi-decade dairy expansion came to a screeching halt in 2008 with the worldwide recession affecting commodities, banks and real estate.
It came home to roost on the young dairyman’s shoulders.
When he died Hans left behind kids ranging from the age of 2 to 14
The story impressed US Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack who met with Roxanne in March and later in August of last year in a meeting with dairymen set up by Jim Costa, the local congressman. According to one account Vilsack called Roxanne to the front of the room where the meeting was held at the Souza Dairy “and explained how meeting with her and her children touched him.He explained that he recalled a painful memory of a friend lost to suicide.” The account is from central California dairy farmer Barbara Martin who pens A Dairy Goddess’s Blog.
The story also made the news in several national news accounts of rural suicide in the midst of the financial crisis down on the farm.
In at least one news story Roxanne was quoted as blaming the bank for changing the terms of a loan.
$50 Billion Lost
The financial crisis continues says Kings County dairy activist Joaquin Contente.
”In the past few years our dairy industry lost $50 billion in income and equity. Add it up and it’s bigger than the Gulf Coast oil spill.”
Contente says simply figuring what a milk cow sells for today at about $1200 per cow vs $2000 a cow before all this - adds up to $9 billion lost in cows alone.
“Today about 20% of local dairy producers are out of equity” and could face foreclosure from their bank too if there is another downturn in prices he contends.
On the more hopeful side milk prices are much better today than they were in 2008 and Contente says that at least “most of us us can pay our day to day bills.”
There is however the worry that feed prices so important to the industry are suddenly spiking again in late 2010 to $5.80 per bushel. Fed by speculators there was a spike in corn prices to $7.50 a bushel in mid 2008 preceding the collapse of milk prices down to$10 per cwt in late 2008 from $17 per cwt just few months before.
Just before Christmas of that year Hans Reitsma committed suicide .