It used to be that when milk left a farm, it was taken away in milk cans. But in the 1950s that old system gave way to something more efficient: tankers hauled by truck. This simplified transportation, and changed how the business was done, as cooperatives sprung up.
Now, Cortland Bulk Milk Producers Co-operative, founded in 1959 in response to this shift, will shut down by the end of the month.
The co-op found buyers for milk, and it hauled milk from member farms to those buyers, many of them companies in New York City that no longer exist. At its height, the co-op had more than 160 member farms from all over Central New York. But last October, the coop decided to disband.
“We stopped handling milk in October,” said Martin Young, co-op president.
By the end of July, its headquarters on Route 11 in Polkville will completely close down.
According to co-op Manager Brenda Sprouse, the last loose end to tie up is the sale of the building and land, which Young said will be put up for sale in the near future.
This year would have been the coop’s 60th year of operation, but it didn’t make it. What happened?
Young said changes in the dairy business over the past few decades were responsible. This co-op is not alone, he said. Few small co-ops still exist in upstate New York, and this is partly due to market uncertainty and heavy competition, he said.
When the co-op reached peak membership in the 1980s, it was producing 125 million pounds of milk annually, said Stuart Young, cousin of Martin and also a past president of the co-op. Stuart Young said between the 1980s and 2018, the number of farms in the co-op dropped to 60. But the farms that remained were big ones, and the volume of milk produced more than doubled from the 1980s — to more than 250 million pounds per year.
These were not the only changes. Martin Young said that most of the co-op’s buyers in New York City also disappeared over the years, forcing the co-op to find new buyers for even more milk. These changes taken in combination were difficult for a small co-op to handle, he said.
Over that same period, the Dairy Farmers of America, the nations’ largest bulk milk co-operative, continued to gain members. Economies of scale played a role here: The larger DFA was better able to cope with changes in the business, and more farms left small co-ops to join the DFA.
But the Cortland co-op held out for years, though it entered into a partnership with Dairylea in 2000, Stewart Young said. In 2013, Dairylea merged with the DFA, and the local co-op entered a partnership with them.
Last October, Alnye Trucking, which has a milk-hauling contract with the DFA, began leasing the facility, said Martin Young. Since then, Alnye tankers daily pass through the facility en route to buyers. Trucks also stop for refueling and repair, said C.J. Gaylord, general manager of the Polkville facility for Alnye Trucking.
“DFA pretty much has the market,” said Gaylord, who has watched the changes over the years.
But not quite. Martin Young said not all former co-op members went to DFA. Some sold their farms, and some went to other coops. And a few went to the Preble Milk Cooperative Association, one of the last of its kind in Central New York, and the oldest. It was founded in 1940.
“They’re about the only one left up there,” Gaylord said.
Jeffrey Crandall, manager of the Preble co-op, said his co-op has survived because it remained small — 34 farms. The co-op is “compact and efficient,” and it’s remained that way partly by staying small and also by hauling milk using its own trucks and drivers, he said.
Moreover, the Preble co-op “kept it very local,” only accepting farms within a 25-mile radius.
This has enabled it to not only survive but to thrive, even in a challenging market, he said. “It’s all about getting that money back to the producers,” Crandall said.