With tempers short, struggling to find ways to save their dairy, Tom Berg and his son Mark had an argument Monday that spilled over from the milking parlor to the barn. There, Tom told his son that, after 40 years in the business, he has less than when he started.
Sitting in a skid-loader after the fight, Mark Berg, 26, pulled out his phone, opened up a video app and began to vent.
“Literally just got done arguing with my dad. Just arguing, screaming back and forth. And it never used to be that way, you know, it never did,” Berg said, brushing back tears. “And it’s not our fault. It isn’t our fault. It isn’t fair.”
After six minutes of talking to the camera, he posted the video on his Facebook page with a note “To the Dairy Community, I know you are hurting, hang in there if you can.”
In the past four days, Berg’s raw, emotional video has been viewed more than 200,000 times.
“I just felt like I had to get something off my shoulders. I didn’t know if anybody would listen,” Berg said in an interview Thursday. “I feel like I was at my weakest point.”
On the video, Berg explained that his family is taking out loans to pay bills, and his eyes welled up again as he said that dairy farmers are being driven to suicide “all the time.”
The Bergs, who run a 200-cow dairy just southeast of Pine Island, Minn., began to argue over a hard choice they faced. With feed running low, the father and son realized they’d have to sell some cows and they quarreled over how many and who would haul them away.
Dairy farming is collapsing a way of life around the country. The median income at a dairy farm in Minnesota dropped by nearly two-thirds last year, from $43,000 to less than $15,000. And one out of 10 Minnesota dairy farmers ceased operations.
Smaller operations, such as the Bergs’, struggle to survive with milk prices hovering around break-even for years. Large-scale operations have emerged with lower costs and high output.
Berg said his parents have been frugal and work hard every day, but it doesn’t matter.
“We’re not asking to make a million,” he said on the video. “But when you literally work day in day out, all the time, for nothing? We’ve gained nothing.”
Near the end, he described feeling irritated by a call his mother, Penny Berg, received from Beth Ford, chief executive of Land O’Lakes, the agricultural cooperative based in Arden Hills that is one of the nation’s largest producers of dairy products. Ford reached out after receiving a letter from Penny Berg outlining the family’s struggles.
Mark Berg gave Ford credit for reading the letter and then calling his mom, but he was upset that she offered to help his mom find other work. “Find another job? My mom wakes up at 5 in the morning every single [expletive] morning and works until 10 o’clock at night,” he said.
Actually, Penny Berg, 60, said she gets up between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. every morning to check on the calves. She doesn’t finish the day until 10 p.m., after the second milking.
In an interview Thursday, she said she’s proud of her son for saying what many farmers are thinking.
“I went ‘Wow,’ ” she said. Then she added, “Number one I don’t like the F-word, but Mark, thank you. I could have never done that. And he has gotten unbelievable responses from other farmers.”
Penny Berg said she was caught off-guard by Ford’s call, was put off by the suggestion of taking a job off the farm but realized later that Ford meant well. “She did not know I put in 18-hour days,” Berg said.
The letter she sent to Ford explained how difficult it has been for the family to survive over the years. First high interest rates, and then fluctuating milk prices. But in 2018 it started to seem less hopeful.
“We always survived,” Penny Berg said. “But then, we weren’t surviving.”
A spokeswoman for Land O’Lakes said that the past few years have been extremely difficult for everyone in the agriculture industry and arguably no sector has been hit harder than dairy.
“The pain in the country, for farm families and rural farm communities, is very real,” the spokeswoman said. “Land O’Lakes is deeply empathetic about the difficulties farmers are facing.”
As for the Berg family, the spokeswoman said, “We hear their concerns, and we plan to continue an open dialogue with them, as we always do, with our cooperative’s farmer-owners.”
On the video, Mark Berg said he and his parents don’t want to do anything else and that dairy farming is their life.
“This isn’t about money. I just want a fair cut, you know,” he said, as his face reddened. “I just want my family to be happy again. But, I just … I don’t know.”
Words escaped him, and he stopped recording.