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My turn: In praise of our dairy farmers

  • Steve Taylor was agricultural commissioner for 25 years. ELODIE REED /Monitor staff



For the Monitor
Thursday, June 30, 2016

This is the month to thank your dairy farmer.

If you’re brave enough to approach a dairy farmer, try not to worry if he seems a little standoffish and curmudgeonly. Or if he acts like he doesn’t notice you standing awkwardly in the driveway. If you wait there long enough, he might emerge from the barn and ask, “Can I help you?”

If you express genuine interest, you’ll soon get into a conversation about cows, hay, tractors and milk prices, and then he might ask if you want to see the calves and if you do, the milking parlor might be next, and before you know it, you may be invited in for a sandwich.

Turns out, he’s not really such a curmudgeon after all, he’s just been up since 4 a.m. milking, then spent half the morning repairing a hydraulic line on a broken manure spreader, hasn’t had lunch yet and still has eight hours of haying to do.

June is National Dairy Month, established in 1937 to promote dairy consumption and to support commercial farmers. It’s not too late to thank your local dairy farmers for their contributions to your life in New Hampshire.

We have plenty to be thankful for – the milk in our coffee, the cheese on our pizza and the ice cream in our cone. Most of the milk in New Hampshire supermarkets comes from farms in our region: the New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and sometimes eastern New York, and lots of the products in the dairy case are made from this milk as well. Dairy remains, by far, the leading agricultural product in New England.

We can thank them for our pastoral landscapes because it’s the dairy farmers that keep our views open. New Hampshire dairy farms and other farms raising forage crops for dairy cattle steward most of our farmland – in pastures, crops and hay. A typical New Hampshire dairy manages 200 to 600 acres or more. Without these farms, the working landscape we love becomes houses or woods.

Let’s not forget their contribution to our local economy: a typical 150 cow dairy farm spends over a million dollars a year in feed, labor, seeds, insurance, fuel, utilities, and services. Some farms are among the biggest businesses in our rural towns. And they are certainly among the oldest, going back 100 years or more. But New Hampshire is not an easy place to be a dairy farmer. As our rural towns become more gentrified and developed, farmers feel the squeeze.

When you support dairy farms, you are supporting family businesses. New Hampshire dairy farms are family farms, and many have three generations working. There is a younger generation that wants to continue dairying, despite the well-known physical hardships and financial struggles, as long as they can afford to stay in the business. Massachusetts farmer Bob Kilmer, who farms with his two sons, says “There are definitely cheaper and easier places to make milk.”

New Hampshire dairy farms generate about a third of all farm sales in the state, and produce about one-third of the milk consumed by the state’s population – the largest portion of any food product produced and consumed in the state. But their future is uncertain. In this current period of below-cost-of-production farm milk prices, New Hampshire has lost 8 percent of its dairy farms – falling from 120 licensed, commercial dairies to 110 since the first of the year. Our dairy farmers aren’t getting rich — it’s a hard way of life with long hours of backbreaking work, unpredictable income, and a lot of risk. They stick to it out of determination, ties to the land and animals, and dedication to family traditions, despite the odds.

In the 1960s many New Hampshire towns had at least a dozen dairy farms. Today, a town is lucky if there is one left. Twenty years ago, in 1996, New Hampshire was home to 226 commercial dairy farms.

Massachusetts has stemmed the loss with the dairy tax credit program, instituted in 2008, to compensate farmers with a payment when the federal milk marketing order price falls below $15 per 100 pounds of milk, which is several dollars below the cost of production. This emergency relief has been triggered in each of the past 12 months. Without this program, Massachusetts would have many fewer dairy farms. Maine and Connecticut also have programs to support dairy farms, and Vermont farmers benefit from favorable property taxation on farm buildings. New Hampshire, which made payments to dairy farms just once, in a dairy crisis 10 years ago, has lost many more farms than Massachusetts in recent years.

The Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers is calling for this program to become a permanent part of the tax code and for an increase to the budget of $2 million per year. This is a small price to pay to keep our farmers on the land, and as the Berkshires continue to gentrify, it’s more important than ever that we support our dairy farmers, who are keeping our farming tradition alive.

Milk is a local food. Dairy farms are local businesses. It’s easy to forget there’s a connection between the tractor on the road and the butter on your toast.

(Sarah Gardner is the producer of “Forgotten Farms,” a new documentary film about traditional dairy farming in the age of kale and artisan cheese, and is the associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.)