Death puts focus on farm crisis

Copake dairy farmer takes his own life after destroying some of herd

COPAKE–In life, dairy farmer Dean Pierson was private, quiet and hard-working, but when he killed himself and 51 of his dairy cows last week, his story drew national attention.

Though newspaper and radio reports have linked the Pierson tragedy to the financial strain put on dairymen by record low milk prices, it seems personal problems rather than economic ones may have played a more substantial role in this dairy farmer’s last desperate acts.

Mr. Pierson, 59, a lifelong dairyman, was in the habit of getting up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows on his High Low Farm at 121 Weed Mine Road. Thursday, January 21, was no exception, according to Livingston State Police Investigator Kelly Taylor. But sometime thereafter, probably in the late morning after milking the cows, police said Mr. Pierson took up a small-caliber rifle and shot his milking cows.

Then he turned the rifle on himself, firing into his chest, police said.

Mr. Pierson left a note on the milkhouse door that warned anyone who read it not to go inside, but to instead call police.

The first person to come across the note was the truck driver who arrived in an Agri-Mark tanker truck to pick up the farm’s milk around lunchtime.

The truck driver called his dispatcher to report the note he found, and the dispatcher called the Kiernans, who operate a neighboring dairy farm, not far up the road.

The Kiernan brothers arrived, went inside the barn, discovered the grim scene and called 911. State Police were called in around 1 p.m., police said.

The cows, most of them Holsteins, some Jerseys, Jersey-crosses and a couple of Brown Swiss, were found dead, still fastened in their tie-stalls, which lined two sides of the barn. He spared the young stock–heifers and calves–and the dry cows, cows that are pregnant and not milking.

Mr. Pierson also left a suicide note, found next to his body, which made reference to his depression over personal issues. “He certainly made it perfectly clear what his intentions were,” said Investigator Taylor.

Pauline Pierson, Mr. Pierson’s mother, told The Columbia Paper Monday, her son was “a fine young man.”  She said she and her husband, Helmer, bought the farm when Dean was just four months old. “He loved the farm” and continued working the farm by himself after his father died. “Dean was well-liked and a good dairy farmer,” said Mrs. Pierson.

In a June 1998 story in The Independent, Elinor Mettler interviewed Mr. Pierson and his wife Gwynneth, a registered nurse, about their new dairy barn.

Mr. Pierson, a Roeliff Jansen High School class of 1968 graduate, who earned an associate’s degree in agriculture at SUNY Cobleskill, sold his dairy herd and took a couple of years off from working for himself in 1996. Mr. Pierson worked on other farms during the interim, and he and his wife visited farm shows and research farms to get ideas about designs for a new barn and how to resume farming in a more efficient manner. They were their own architects, and the structure contained many innovative features, including a room where their four children could play.

Dr. George Beneke, a local veterinarian at the Copake Veterinary Hospital, less than a mile from the Pierson farm, was called in by State Police to verify that all the cows that were shot were dead.

The Kiernans, who also own an excavation business, used their heavy equipment to bury the carcasses in a trench they dug outside the barn.

A veterinarian for 41 years come May, Dr. Beneke knew Mr. Pierson and is aware of the economic situation faced by his dairy farmer clients.

Farmer suicides as a result of financial stress are not uncommon, said the vet. Friends and relatives who heard about the tragedy and called Dr. Beneke, told him about other recent suicides in Maine, California and other parts of New York.

What makes the Pierson case unusual is the shooting of the cows.

Asked for some insight into why Mr. Pierson may have shot them, Dr. Beneke said with certainty, “He loved his cows, he was not abusive to those cows. He tried to do a good job with them and he took good care of them; it wasn’t like he was trying to get back at the cows.

“In a strange way he may have been trying not to saddle someone else with his work,” said the veterinarian. Since he decided he was not going to be there to take care of the milking cows, which are more labor intensive because they have to be milked twice a day, “he did not want to create work for somebody else.”

Dr. Beneke called dairy farming “a way of life,” adding, “It’s what Dean enjoyed doing, and he made a decent living at it for his family.”

But now the farming business is in a depression, said the veterinarian, with milk prices down to half farmers used to earn for a prolonged period.

“It’s the worst I have seen in 40 years,” Dr. Beneke said. “Some farmers think it’s their own fault, if only they could do things differently, if only they could do things better…”

Noting he has counseled Mr. Pierson and other farmers not to take the current economic situation personally, Dr. Beneke blamed massive farms in the Midwest for creating the milk glut. “Suddenly you have one farm milking 5,000 cows. More cows than an entire four or five county area around here,” he said.

Local farmers who have worked hard and have achieved a certain degree of success, now find themselves having to get used to having less success.

A farmer puts in a 16-hour day of hard physical work, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. At the end of every day he goes home at night, and it’s like somebody is taking money out of his wallet, Dr. Beneke said. It costs a farmer $17 to produce 100 pounds (cwt) of milk, but farmers now receive only $10 for that same hundred pounds. While prices have started to rise to between $14 and $16/cwt, it will be three years before farmers will even start to break even again, he said.

The work is tough enough, said Dr. Beneke, but Mr. Pierson’s job was likely tougher because he did it alone. It helps to have someone else around, just to complain to or tell a joke, he said.

Urging consumers to support farmers by buying locally produced, high quality products, Dr. Beneke said that the call to Buy Local is not a hollow slogan. “In the long term, without the Deans of the world, people are going to get hungry,” said Dr. Beneke.

Mr. Pierson’s death is the most recent tragedy to hit farm families in the Roe Jan area since December.

On December 12, 2009, Michael Miller Jr., 25, was killed in a snowmobile crash. Mr. Miller was a young dairyman and the latest generation of his family to take up farming. The Millers trace their farming history on Millerhurst Farm in Ancramdale back to the mid-1700s. Sixteen days later, the patriarch of that family, Harold Miller, 75, died of a heart ailment.

On December 17, 2009, an electrical fire killed 52 head of dairy cattle and destroyed Nancy and Paul Miller’s dairy barn at Snook Hill Farm in Copake. The blaze ended a four-generation tradition of dairy farming for the family.

The two Miller families are not related.

To contact Diane Valden email .

Comments are closed.