Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love | Holding On
And yet, to be honest, there was little in my immediate view to suggest that the auction wouldn’t endure. The turnout seemed strong; spirits seemed high. Large pieces of equipment were selling for many thousands of dollars and, it appeared to my admittedly novice eye, selling quickly. I heard laughter; I saw smiling faces. Everyone seemed relaxed, and it occurred to me that maybe I was simply at a farm-equipment auction on a nice day in April, watching as flannel-clad men quietly assigned an upper boundary to the price they’d pay, and then did what they could to pay less.
On the morning of the Pines auction, I’d kissed my wife and two young boys goodbye and walked over the hill from our own small farmstead (seven cows, a dozen sheep, four pigs, and enough chickens that fresh eggs can sometimes feel like a burden), across a ridgetop hayfield still redolent of the spring’s manure spreading, and down a short, steep, grassy pitch to Melvin Churchill’s dairy farm. At the top of the hill, I paused for a moment to survey the scene below me.
From my vantage point, I could see the back of the old farmhouse where Melvin lives with his partner, Janet Whitlock. It’s large and rambling, constructed many decades before terms like “energy efficiency” and “green building” had entered our lexicon. Every year Melvin buys a dozen cords of hardwood logs to feed the basement furnace. The house is white clapboard, with a large wraparound porch. The paint is flaking, and in some places the lines don’t meet as precisely as they once did, but it’s still solid.
The barn is about 50 feet from the house, slightly downhill, across a packed-dirt barnyard. Naturally, it’s red. Equipment is scattered about the property: three tractors and a bulldozer; the implements of haying–mower, tedder, rake, baler; a round bale wrapper, for sealing the big marshmallow-like cylinders of hay that have all but replaced traditional square bales on the modern dairy farm; a pair of hay wagons; and a handful of cars and pickup trucks in varying stages of disrepair. There’s a small pond, and along its southern shore, a tall diving platform that Melvin’s sons (Martin, Matthew, Morgan, and Jeremy) constructed one summer from cedar poles. Now it leans precariously, as if preparing to take a dive itself.
Melvin’s property isn’t an unnaturally spotless postcard farm. The old implements, the broken cars, the loose shingles on the barn roof … I suppose that someone from a place where the workday didn’t begin at 5:00 a.m. and end 14 hours later, and the workweek didn’t extend into those days beginning with the letter S, might view these things as eyesores.
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.