• Dairy diary
    May 14,2012

    Another Vermont dairy farmer this coming week is closing the book on generations of providing product. Across our state, hearts break whenever the news another herd is being auctioned off makes headlines. The latest, the MacLaren Farm in Plainfield, gave the same reasons all struggling dairy farmers give these days: low milk prices, high costs for feed, fertilizer and maintaining equipment. It is the last dairy farm in town.

    The MacLarens had been farming the same land since 1939. The brothers were third generation farmers, and that is young by Vermont standards. Some farmers roots go back to the 1800s — seven, eight and nine generations in some cases.

    Decades ago, Gov. George Aiken (and later a member of Congress for Vermont) fought hard to secure a future for the state’s dairy farmers. Every governor since has tried to keep those initiatives in place so that Vermont can continue to compete in the dairy marketplace, and our pastoral landscape can continue to be a reminder that farming is at the very core of what we love about Vermont. Without the rolling open fields, the cows, the old barns, and drivers waiting for tractors on the road, the Green Mountain State would be a very different place.

    Stories like the MacLarens give us pause that our state – a pinnacle of agriculture – may be at a turning point.

    But in an editorial board with Times Argus staff last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin fielded a question about whether there was a trigger that needed to be pulled when it was no longer cost-effective for the state and federal government to continue subsidizing Vermont dairy farms.

    His answer was direct and sure: Vermont dairy farms (and farming, in general) are going through an agricultural renaissance — one that brings more value-added products to consumers here and in other states, as well as providing other opportunities for other farmers looking to diversify and even expand into other markets. In that way, farming stays vibrant in a state that prides itself in its working landscape.

    Yet, while milk prices are slightly improved over previous years, fuel prices are irritatingly high for farmers looking to plant crops in the coming weeks. The short growing season forces the hand of many dairy farmers, who must decide each spring whether it is worth it to push on another season. (Fertilizer alone climbs higher each year, it seems.)

    The MacLarens describe it as a grind and stress that they would not likely miss. They are not alone.

    So far this spring, state agriculture officials warn, nine dairy farms have decided to close down or try other things with their land. That brings the total number of Vermont dairy farms down to 977. In Aiken’s day, when farming was in one of its heydays here, there were more than 6,000 dairy farms, and the population of cows exceeded the census count. That anecdote was popular even into the 1980s. He would be dismayed and, likely, dismiss Shumlin’s optimistic assessment as unrealistic and improbable in this downward spiral.

    It’s true, the number of dairy farms making value-added products, like cheese, on site has expanded from 58 in 2001 to 78 as of last year.

    But that is a far cry from a renaissance.

    Farmers are transitioning over to harvesting feed for other farmers still in the game. Even then, however, they remain cautious because prices do not seem to be going anywhere other than up.

    On Wednesday, the MacLarens will watch their legacy get shipped off in trucks. It will be a sad day.

    Hopefully, within the next few years, we will have stopped the hemorrhaging loss of dairy farms and will have figured out new public policy that will do Aiken, Shumlin and all Vermonters proud.

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