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Madera dairyman carves out a life worth living

Frank Borges lives a dream of many parents. His two children are both pursuing studies in the family trade – agriculture. He too followed his father’s footsteps.

“My father was a dairy farmer in Portugal,” Borges said. “He sold all that to come to the U.S. I grew up with that so it was all I knew.”

Nonetheless, he and his wife Kathleen are first-generation farmers. He had only worked as an employee in the dairy industry until they married and then started their farm in 1974. Kathleen handles all the bookkeeping.

“We started with 280 head (of cattle) and, at that time, I still remember just looking at them from far away,” he said. “I could identify them by ID number. It wasn’t very big and it was a gift that I could identify them. Today I can’t do that anymore. I have to go up close to get the number now.”

Today his dairy farm has about 3,250 head, and dairies have become more industrialized. From 1975-2000, the number of U.S. farms with milk cows dropped and the herd size on remaining farms grew, yet most were still owned and operated by individuals and families, according to a June 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin. While the U.S. produced 45 percent more milk in 2000 than 1975, it did so with 18 percent fewer cows (9.2 million instead of 11.1 million). Each milk cow produced 76 percent more milk than in 1975.

Such changes come at a cost.

“It was more like a way of life at that time” in 1974, Borges said. “I did a lot of the labor and today it’s more like a business. It’s a big business today. You don’t have time to do any of the labor for it, just the management. It was a lot simpler (before). We didn’t have all the regulatory issues we have today and the prices weren’t as volatile as they are today. We know we’re in a global economy and its unpredictable.”

The years of 2009-2013 would be the most difficult Borges can remember. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2009 both contributed to the Great Recession that hit the globe hardest in 2009, according to World Bank. Global trade fell faster than it had during the Great Depression, according to a 2012 analysis by professors Barry Eichengreen of University of California, Berkeley, and Kevin O’Rourke of Oxford University. Fortunately it recovered faster as well.

“I think about 2014 the prices got back up to about $20 a hundredweight and the feed prices were a little more stable, more reasonable,” Borges said. “It used to be California had the cheapest feed ingredients for cattle in the industry.”

But not any more, he said. The high price of almonds led to more land devoted to its trees and land prices rose. On top of that are restrictive air and water board regulations. As a result, “it is almost impossible (for dairies) to expand. California has not expanded hardly anything.”

Historically, dairy production has grown four percent per year “for almost 30 years,” Borges said. “And the last eight years we have been in a decline of three percent a year. New dairies are almost nonexistent for California.”

“Inputs” – the cost of feed, labor and regulations – have boxed in an industry trying to push forward amid a persistent drought. “With the building requirements and inputs, we just can’t compete with other areas around the country and the world for that matter,” Borges said. Inputs are “a lot higher. It is getting hard to find good labor anymore. Every time you turn around the state passes another bill that is contrary to the business climate in California.”

The market has not been overly favorable to dairy this year.

Milk has “stayed up at $20 a hundredweight,” he explained. “The first half of this year it has been averaging about $14 ... Our inputs are less, so we’ve been able to weather the storm a little better than 2009-2013. Still, in the last 60 days, we must have had close to 10 dairies that sold out.”

That amounts to five or six thousand milk cows out of production as well as around 10 dairy families out of the industry.

“They don’t want to put up with it anymore,” he said. “They’re losing money. Their land is more valuable. Maybe they have a neighbor who buys them out, maybe an almond grower. Almonds are pretty much the only thing that can support the price of land … The next generation just doesn’t want to put up on a bleak return on investment. They’d rather get an education and find something else to do. It’s a very demanding business, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Yet Borges hasn’t lost hope in the dairy industry himself – thanks to his family.

“I think the number one thing is you keep your family together and you work close together ... My daughter (Kristina) is in Cal Poly” University, he said. “She just graduated in dairy science. She’s going for her master’s in business and my son (Matthew) is in Fresno State. He will be graduating next year in ag production … Having your family working together, that’s kind of the best part of agriculture ... Right now I’m just waiting to see if my kids want to take this going forward and that’s kind of what my goal is right now.”

Aside from his wife and children, Borges finds joy in baseball. He has been president of the Madera Babe Ruth Baseball League for five years and has coached for 10 years. He works with about 120 youths for two summer months each year.

“I enjoy that it gives me some time to get off the farm and do something different,” he said. “I enjoy all the kids that are involved with that. It’s been very rewarding … Over a 10-year period I’ve known about 1,000 kids that come through the program. It’s all voluntary. And my son coaches there as well. He played there and after je finished playing in it, he started coaching. He’s still doing that.”

Borges also served as part of the Madera County Farm Bureau for about 15 years in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s as well as with St. Joachim Church and the Knights of Columbus.

“I did the Mother’s Day corsages (fundraiser) for 15 years” to benefit the work of Right to Life Central California, he said.

But among all his loves, dairy remains a passion, and he sees that passion as essential for anyone considering entering into the industry, even if doing so is difficult in California today.

“If it’s your passion, you should do it. You should never get discouraged,” he said. “If there’s a will, there’s a way. That’s what I always say. When I was an employee I was told there’s no way I would do it. If it’s your passion to help mankind (by) producing food, don’t let any obstacles be in your way. …. I started off (as a dairy worker) in Southern California in the Chino area ... and I couldn’t start there because everything was more expensive.”

So he came to Madera.

“Anything that is worthwhile isn’t easy,” he said.

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