Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love | Holding On
But perhaps because I was raised in rural Vermont, where these sights are commonplace, or perhaps because I know Melvin Churchill and at least something of what it takes to make a living milking 42 cows in Vermont in 2010, that’s not my view. Rather, I’ve come to appreciate these sights as a tangible lesson in thrift and the enduring willingness to carry on in the face of the knowledge that things aren’t likely to get any easier anytime soon. In that way, they remind me of the qualities that once defined rural American life but are now eroding. It’s an erosion, I believe, that leaves us all poorer.
I walked down the hill and across the barnyard.
I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I’ve grown up around them; for a time, when I was a boy, my mother milked cows at a small dairy a mile or two up the gravel road from our home outside Enosburg, Vermont. Enosburg is a small town in the state’s northwestern corner, where the land flattens along its sweep toward Lake Champlain. I was born in 1971, when Vermont was home to 4,083 dairy farms, and many of them were situated along the state’s western corridor, where the agreeable topography and fertile soil provided an ideal canvas for family-size dairy farming.
At the time, 4,083 dairy farms must have felt like a terribly diminished number, nearly two-thirds fewer than had existed only a generation prior. But of course the slide has continued, and it’s hard to ignore the obvious, which is that Vermont is likely to soon have fewer than 1,000 dairy farms. To understand why the downward trajectory of Vermont’s dairy farming community looks as steep and intractable as the state’s vaunted ski slopes, it’s critical to understand a bit about how dairy farming works–or, more precisely, how the milk market works.
Milk is sold as a bulk commodity; once it leaves any particular farm, it’s trucked to a central processing and distribution plant, where it’s mingled with the milk of hundreds of other farms. Farmers are paid by the hundredweight, which, as you may have guessed, is 100 pounds. (Since you probably don’t buy milk by the pound, it might be helpful to know that there are about 11.6 gallons in a hundredweight.) Like most bulk commodities, the farmer doesn’t set the price for his or her milk; instead, market forces such as supply, demand, and the costs of the various inputs necessary to produce milk set the price. The costs of these inputs are themselves volatile; for instance, over the past two years, the price of diesel fuel has ranged broadly, from about $2.50 per gallon to nearly $5 per gallon.
In Vermont, it’s widely accepted that it costs about $17 to produce a hundredweight of conventional fluid milk. Of course, that figure varies, depending on current input prices and a farm’s particular circumstances, but it’s close enough to help us understand why nearly nine in ten Vermont dairy farms have gone under in the past six decades. And it’s definitely close enough to understand why the region’s dairy farmers are facing a crisis of historic proportions, driven by a recent collapse in milk prices–along with the continuing pressures exerted by development, property taxes, and the shifting landscape of how our nation produces its food. It’s a crisis that came to a head in July 2009, when the wholesale price of milk dropped to $10.04 per hundredweight. It was the lowest price in more than three decades, and the fallout was immediate: By the end of the year, Vermont would lose 52 more dairy farms, nearly 5 percent of its remaining total.
In 1997, my wife (then girlfriend) Penny and I bought 40 acres in Cabot, Vermont, a small town about 23 miles northeast of Montpelier, the state capital. You’ve probably heard of Cabot–it’s home to the eponymous creamery, maker of the “World’s Best Cheddar” and numerous other dairy products.
Frankly, if it weren’t for the creamery, you likely wouldn’t know the name Cabot, for the town is in most other ways similar to hundreds of other rural New England communities. The village proper is home to about 250 people; the surrounding hills and valleys that fall within the town’s purview bring the official population to 1,300. It’s a solid, working-class community of solid, working-class people: farmers and carpenters, plus the occasional artist or lawyer.
The cooperative that forms Cabot Creamery was founded in 1919, during a period of dairy-industry malaise that would look alarmingly familiar to a Cabot farmer from 2010: lots of milk sloshing around a depressed market. Things were bad enough to compel nearly 100 of the town’s farmers (yes, there were once this many dairy farmers in Cabot alone) to band together to purchase the village creamery, with the intention of turning milk into butter–and butter, which is easier to ship to distant markets and carries a production premium, into money. Each farmer kicked in $5 per cow and a cord of firewood to fuel the boiler, and a business was born. In the early 1930s, the company added cheese to its offerings, and by 1960, more than 600 farms across New England had joined the cooperative.
It’s hard not to imagine that this was a simpler, healthier era of dairy farming. Many farmers still milked by hand and kept herds of only 15 or 20 cows. “You could make a decent living on that–you didn’t have to keep thinking about getting bigger and bigger,” Melvin Churchill says. Farmers milked into buckets, which they emptied into 10-gallon cans, where the milk cooled in a bath of icy water. When winter roads became impassable, they’d hitch up a horse and sleigh for the trip to the creamery. All of this sounds impossibly quaint and deeply historic, but it wasn’t all that long ago: Melvin is 62, and he remembers it clearly.
Today, there are nine working dairy farms in Cabot; only two produce milk for the creamery cooperative, which has now grown to include 1,200 farms through New England and upstate New York. The remainder of Cabot’s dairy farmers, including Melvin and son Matt Churchill, who farm together, sell into the organic milk market, and it’s not hard to understand why. The premium for organic fluid milk is substantial, with farmers currently receiving about $30 per hundredweight.
Perhaps more important, the purchasing arrangements common in the organic market guarantee farmers a fixed price for the length of their contracts (typically a year), creating a buffer against the frequent gyrations in the price of conventional fluid milk. (Cabot Creamery mitigates this effect somewhat through profit sharing, which has helped its members weather the collapse in milk prices.) The simple fact that the majority of Cabot’s dairy farms can’t afford to sell milk into the conventional market that supplies the creamery bearing the town’s name is indicative of the deep divide between what it takes to maintain a viable
family-size dairy farm and what the market will bear. With the price of conventional milk prone to whipsawing above and, most recently, far below the cost of production, there’s little question that organic dairy farming offers at least a degree of stability and viability.
But $30 organic milk isn’t exactly a path to riches. To produce organic milk, a farmer must purchase organic grain, which costs nearly twice as much as conventional. If they need to buy hay, they’ll pay 30 to 50 percent more than they would for conventional. Certified organic livestock fetch a similar premium. And right now, with the organic-milk market suffering from the decline in the broader economy, production quotas have been imposed on many farmers, meaning they often can’t sell as much milk as they can make.
“People think organic is a silver bullet,” Melvin notes. “But it’s not. You’ve still got to be a good manager. You’ve still got to get up in the dark and go to work every day.” I mentioned that it sure seemed to me that getting up in the dark and going to work every day was exactly what he wanted to do. “Well, that’s true,” he replied. He chuckled a bit: “I guess that’s true.”