Farm kids getting a handle on the business at Stanislaus County Fair

Daniel Nascimento does not have to go on a carnival ride to know what it's like to be yanked around.

The 19-year-old, who is showing dairy cattle at the Stanislaus County Fair this week, helps run his family's 350-cow farm near Hilmar.

He saw milk prices plunge early this year from the strong levels of 2008, as the recession sapped demand around the world.

"We've done some pretty crazy roller-coasters in the past couple years," Nascimento said during a break from his chores at the fairground dairy barn. "We need to unite and figure out what we can do as an industry together."

So are he and the other dairy entrants feeling glum at this annual celebration of the county's agriculture?

There was little evidence of that Tuesday afternoon, as 4-H and FFA members fed and milked and groomed their cows amid a mild scent of manure and the faint squeals from the midway.

The fair has drawn 612 dairy entries, about the same as last year despite the expense of raising the animals.

"We're going through an extraordinarily difficult time now, but it's encouraging that there's still an interest out there," said Turlock-area dairyman Ray Souza, president of the fair board.

A year ago, Northern California farmers got a minimum of $1.70 per gallon of milk bound for bottling plants, under a state formula that changes monthly. This month, they are getting $1.01, far less than what it costs them to produce it.

Some farms have gone out of business, with the help of a program that sends their cows to the beef market to reduce the milk

surplus. Other farmers have tried to cut expenses and rely on loans.

"I think it's a phase the dairy business is going through," said Joseph Coleman, 19, who also is showing cattle at the fair.

He and Nascimento are in the Hilmar chapter of FFA, once known as Future Farmers of America. They study dairy science and agricultural business at Modesto Junior College.

Coleman said milk prices rise and fall in a way similar to oil, but the difference is that cows still need to be fed each day and the feed dealers want to be paid.

He said it helps to have a side venture, such as the olive trees at the 2,000-cow farm owned by his parents, Marc and Veronica Coleman.

Both young men said they enjoy the dairy business, even if it means starting work before dawn or being called home from the road to deal with a problem.

"You have to have a passion for it to still do it," Coleman said.

Nascimento, the son of Joe and Maria Nascimento, said the industry benefits from people who have grown up on the farms and know every job that needs to be done.

About a third of the fair's dairy entrants live on farms, and the rest raise cows as a hobby, livestock superintendent John Mendes said.

"They're very passionate about caring for their cows and breeding the genetics in these cows and making them better," said Mendes, who teaches animal science at MJC.

Stanislaus is one of the nation's leading dairy counties, with an estimated $745 million in gross income to farmers in 2007. That number is certain to decline with the reduced milk prices.

Coleman and Nascimento said they see a bright future for the business in spite of the current troubles.

"If you can make it through this, you can make it through anything," Nascimento said, "because this is the worst it's ever been."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.

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