The U.S. Department of Agriculture says dairy farms in the U.S. are on the decline. There are about half as many dairy farms as there were about two decades ago.

All farmers have to be adaptable when it comes to operating a dairy in a low-milk price environment and challenges when it comes to good weather.

For some New York farmers, it’s about getting one particular product back into the hands of young people, because their economic livelihoods are on the line.

What You Need To Know

  • There are about half as many dairy farms as there were about two decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • New York farmers with "97 Milk" say getting whole milk products back on school cafeteria trays would benefit their economic livelihoods

  • Critics of whole milk say low-fat milk has nutritional value and fits the dietary guidelines for children set by the USDA

There’s a battle taking place in school lunchrooms. And it starts on dairy farms like Ronnybrook Farm in Pine Plains.

It’s a fourth-generation family farm run by Richard Osofsky. It all started more than 80 years ago. Milk is processed in the morning, and by afternoon, it’s on grocery store shelves.

Osofsky says it’s a miracle of nature.

“Full-fat milk is not a demon; full-fat milk is the most amazingly nutrient rich food you can possibly consume,” said Osofsky, the president of Ronnybrook Farm.

Osofsky is proud of the work he and his cows do to keep the milk flowing, but he’s also concerned that his farm’s daily production is under a lot more scrutiny.

Whole milk is no longer served in U.S. public schools, a change made under the Obama administration. Public schools currently offer only fat-free or low-fat milk options.

Osofsky wants to see his whole milk products back on school cafeteria trays, so he’s enlisted the help of Ann Diefendorf, a sixth-generation small dairy farmer in Schoharie County. She’s with “97 Milk,” a volunteer-run group that goes around New York state painting bales from county to county. Her message: return whole milk to American schools.

Her painted bales stand out along highways or farm-adjacent roads across the state to raise awareness and educate community members who simply don’t know about the whole milk ban.

“Very attention grabbing,” Diefendorf said. “They are conversation pieces for sure.”

She worries about the survival of New York dairy farms.

“Consumption is a big thing for us dairy farmers,” she said. “If they don’t drink it, we don’t sell it. And if the milk doesn’t taste good in school, they won’t drink it.”

Critics of whole milk say low-fat milk has nutritional value and fits the dietary guidelines for children set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Switching back to whole milk isn’t supported by the science,” said Samuel Hahn, policy coordinator for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “And many, many kids rely on school breakfast and school lunch, as like a primary source of their nutrition every single day. And so we can’t really be putting the interests of the dairy industry over kids’ health.”

Diefendorf wants more New Yorkers to stand up for full-fat cow’s milk, not just for what she says are the health benefits, but the economic ones as well.

There’s a bipartisan bill in Congress called the “Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act.” That would give schools the flexibility to offer whole milk once again.

Recently, Spectrum News 1 spoke to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about what’s happening at the federal level when it comes to New York whole milk.

“They should sell whole milk in school, because as a mom of boys who like whole milk and don’t drink skim milk, and don’t drink low-fat milk, I promise you, getting that calcium and getting those calories is really important for growing kids,” the senator said.

Gillibrand also mentioned that she’s working on legislation and other federal efforts to try and protect New York milk producers.

Dairy farmers are also concerned about the domino effect on dependent industries. If the producers go under, that also means a loss for machinery dealers and feed dealers because they’d lose farmers as their customers.