HANFORD — In nearly six decades of running a dairy in central California, Mary Cameron made a name for herself in a male-dominated industry: She led several dairy organizations and was honored as Outstanding Dairy Producer of the Year.
But the 82-year-old Cameron — who still drives a tractor and supervises her Hanford dairy — is on the brink of losing her life's work. She can no longer pay the bills. Her bank has classified her loan as distressed. And she can't afford enough feed for her 900 milking cows and 1,000 heifers.
"I have been in this business for 57 years and I have never been in financial trouble like I am right now," said Cameron, who runs the Atsma-Cameron Dairy with her two sons. "I'm on the verge of bankruptcy. It's horrible and inexcusable."
Cameron is not alone. Across California, the nation's largest dairy state, dozens of dairy operators large and small have filed for bankruptcy in recent months and many teeter on the edge of insolvency. Others have sold their herds or sent them to slaughter and given up on the business.
Experts say California dairymen face a double whammy: exorbitant feed costs and lower milk prices. The Midwest drought has led to corn and soybean costs increasing by more than 50 percent this summer, stressing dairymen from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Missouri. But in California, milk prices have also lagged behind those in the rest of the nation, exacerbating the crisis.
And while milk revenues in California have soared to over $7.5 billion in 2011, making milk the top agricultural commodity, higher revenues mean little, famers say, because it costs so much more to produce the milk.
"I don't think there's a milk producer in the state who is profitable right now," said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen.
Since 2008, California has lost nearly 300 dairies, with 1,668 remaining as of January, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. There are no official estimates on how many dairies have shuttered in 2012 — but interviews with dairymen and experts indicate several hundred dairies could be in danger of going under.
"It's been like a floodgate," said Riley Walter, a Fresno-based agricultural bankruptcy lawyer who has worked on 58 cases of dairies in financial trouble this past year — from bankruptcies, to liquidations, to operations taken over by receivers.
"Recently, I had two men over 60 years old who broke down and sobbed in court," Walter said. "You would be surprised how much these men care about their cows."
At the Overland Stock Yard in Hanford, owner Peter Belezzuoli said he sees two to three dairymen selling their entire herd every month, compared to about four per year before the crisis. More cows are being sold for slaughter, he said. And the value of dairy cattle has plummeted by as much as 50 percent in the past five years.
"It's no different than the housing industry, where people lost all the equity," he said. "People have the same cow, but now it doesn't have the same value."