Milk consumption, which has been declining for decades, is nearing a disturbing milestone for the dairy industry.
Fluid milk sales (as opposed to sales of milk used in butter, cheese and the like) totaled 53.739 billion pounds in 2011, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That translates to 20.04 gallons per person last year, down from 29.8 gallons in 1970.
Dairy farmers are pulling out all the stops to prevent that figure from dipping into the too close for comfort teens, but they've got their work cut out for them.
Gone are the days when a milk man routinely delivered farm fresh milk to every doorstep. Today, consumers buy milk at the supermarket -- along with bottled water, soda pop, juice and other beverages that compete for the job of quenching a family's thirst.
And then there are increasingly popular milk-like drinks made from soybeans, almonds or coconuts.
The California Milk Processor Board, creator of the iconic "Got milk?" promotion, has taken aim at those competitors with a "Science of Imitation Milk" campaign launched last spring. TV ads running through the end of the year poke fun at the ingredients in milk substitutes, some of which are unfamiliar and hard to pronounce.
"Our only ingredients are milk and vitamin D," said spokeswoman Tatum Wan.
Suzanne Hagener is a senior marketing manager for Almond Breeze, a brand of almond milk produced by the Blue Diamond cooperative of almond growers.
She said the campaign doesn't scare the cooperative, whose 3,000 members include about half of the state's almond growers.
"In the last couple of years, almond milk sales have just exploded," Hagener said. "Consumers know a great thing when they see it. It's a very healthy alternative. Less calories. Lactose free. And it's delicious."
The issue is a tough one for Kern County, where both milk and nuts commonly used in milk substitutes are both produced in large quantities.
Milk was Kern's No. 1 agricultural commodity last year, a $745.5 million industry, according to the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards' annual crop report.
Almonds were a close second, valued at $727.4 million last year.
The slow but steady decline in milk consumption comes on top of other forces creating a difficult environment for dairy farms.
Weakened demand during the economic downturn combined with skyrocketing feed prices have been shrinking or wiping out profits for several years now, forcing many of the state's dairies to either close or reduce their herds.
The issue is serious enough that earlier this week, California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross announced the creation of a California Dairy Future Task Force, charged with protecting the long-term sustainability of the state’s dairy farm industry.
The industry says there's still strong demand for dairy. Just not in liquid form.
"Total dairy product consumption is about the same," said registered dietician Maureen Bligh, a project manager for the Dairy Council of California. "Between yogurt and all the different varieties of cheeses and things, there's plenty of demand."
Fluid milk accounts for about 15 percent of the milk produced in the state, compared with 30 percent 25 years ago, said Leslie J. "Bees" Butler, a dairy expert at UC Davis. The rest is used for ice cream, butter and other dairy products.
Butler said drinking milk has fallen victim to a general trend toward healthier eating.
"There's a perception that it's unhealthy because of the fat content, which is why the industry bent over backwards to bring out all those 1 percent, 2 percent and fat free milks," he said. "I think they're also up against the idea that it's just boring to drink milk, which I don't understand. I drink it every day. And as for the fat, everybody needs some fat. If you eliminate all fat from your diet, you can't exist."
What dairy producers need to do, the Dairy Council's Bligh said, is work harder to highlight the nutritional value of dairy, which is, after all, a food group on the food pyramid.
"Adults need about three servings a day of dairy to be healthy, and most, on average, get about two," she said. "So they're one serving short, and there are nutrients in milk that are unique. You can't get them anywhere else."