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Why Stanislaus County dairy farmers are leaving the business

More than 50 dairy farmers chose to leave the business between 2012 and 2017, according to a USDA Census of Agriculture report.

TURLOCK, Calif. — More farmers than ever before are making the difficult choice to leave the dairy business in Stanislaus County, according to a USDA Census of Agriculture report.

"I operated a dairy farm here since 1973," Ray Souza said.

For Souza, farming is in his blood.

"Sometimes you have to put your head above your heart," he said.

And leaving back in October of 2016 was never a part of the plan.

"I miss it. I come out here every day. I can still come out here and breathe the 'dairy air' as they say, but there's parts that I miss, there's other parts I don't miss, out of a whole. I think we made the right decision for us," he said.

According to a USDA Census of Agriculture report, Souza is one of about 50 dairy farmers that chose to leave the business in Stanislaus County alone between 2012 and 2017.

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"We look at the boom/bust economy we've had in dairy over the last few years. Dairymen have decided to go somewhere else where it's a little less regulated, land costs are cheaper. It's expensive in California, we have high land costs, water's becoming an issue, the availability of water, especially here, it's becoming a very serious issue," he said.

Stanislaus County Agriculture Commissioner Milton O'Haire says the drop in farmers has caused milk production to decrease by more than nine percent.

"There's more regulatory pressure on dairies. The cost of milk, or really, the price that they receive has really flatlined or declined, and they don't get any more for their milk than they did six years ago. So, you can imagine during that time the price of commodities have increased. So their profit margins have either shrunk or completely dissipated," O'Haire said.

Souza now rents out his dairy to another farmer, Kevin Azevedo, who is hopeful things will get better.

"It's been tough financially. You kind of take from paying Paul to pay John, and juggle things around, but no matter what you make ends meet towards the end," Azevedo said.

Each year, he says he's being weighed down by more regulatory fees.

"High feed costs, low milk prices, dealing with all of these tariffs, and international compliance and all that stuff, it's been very difficult. Regulations here in California just constantly be getting worse and worse," he said.

But even through the hard times, Azevedo says he's here to stay.

"I just want to continue it on and be there to have it for my kids," he said.

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