If lush, green, rolling hillsides dotted with healthy cows chomping on grasses seems like some kind of pastoral fantasy, the reality is turning into a nightmare for California dairy farmers. Overproduction and a failing economy has driven prices down and the price of feed for dairymen without the acreage to pasture has skyrocketed. Back in May, the L.A. Times reported that current milk prices only bring in half of what it costs to produce a gallon of milk, leaving some of California's dairy farmers with no option left but to sell off their herds.

Cooperatives Working Together (CWT), a producer-funded organization dedicated to stabilizing milk prices, reported on July 2 that they had completed the seventh round of their “Herd Retirement Program” since 2003, removing 101,040 cows from the milk production chain. Of the 101,040 cows, 80 percent–that's 81,366 cows–sent to slaughter were from Western and Southwestern states. With the cows gone and their 1.96 billion pounds of milk potential removed from the market, the question becomes what's next.

The U.S. Dairy crisis takes more than a financial toll. Multi-generation family farms feel the brunt of the impact and see the direct effects of shutting down their operations on their communities and the people they employ. Dairymen like Joey Mendoza, profiled in this week's California Report, broke down as he discussed selling off his herd, but he also sees an opportunity down the line. He's considering starting up again in a few years, but with a smaller, more manageable herd that his ranch could sustain at pasture without buying feed.

Leah Greenstein writes at SpicySaltySweet and the co-author of the Food Blog Code of Ethics.

LA Weekly