A conversation with the cow guy

  • Steve Taylor said that though milk consumption has continued to decline in the U.S., dairy continues to be in high demand for things like pizza cheese.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Steve Taylor stands outside his family dairy farm, the Taylor Brothers Farm, in Plainfield on Wednesday. Taylor was previously the agricultural commissioner in New Hampshire for 25 years, and is generally regarded as an expert on dairy and cows in the state.  ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • A cow shows its curiosity at Taylor Brothers Farm in Plainfield on Wednesday.  ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Rounds of gouda cheese sit after being waxed at the Plainfield dairy farm Wednesday.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Cheesemaker Gary Hamel waxes gouda at Taylor Brothers Farm Wednesday.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Colby cheese waits to be waxed Wednesday. While milk consumption has gone down over time, value-added dairy products, like cheese, help the industry continue.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Holstein dairy cattle stand outside at Taylor Brothers Farm in Plainfield Wednesday.  ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/5/2016 8:15:17 PM

With plummeting milk prices and lagging milk consumption, it’s proving to be another lean year in an ongoing, decades long struggle for U.S. dairy farmers.

But there’s some good news amid the trend of slim margins. Americans love their cheese and pizza, and Greek yogurt is all the rage, which keeps the industry afloat.

“Right now, everybody’s under stress,” said longtime farmer Steve Taylor, who is somewhat of a historian on the hows and the whys of New Hampshire dairy farming.

When Taylor’s not giving bovine talks for the New Hampshire Humanities Council, like he did in Meredith last week, you’ll find Taylor at his Plainfield farm. There in his muck boots and with his sons, two part-time workers and several dozen cows, he helps run Taylor Brothers Farm, which he and his late wife began in 1970.

Change is nothing new to the state’s dairy farmers, he points out. Taylor is one of the 250 or so dairy farms left in the state according to the 2012 agricultural census, down from more than 2,400 farms with dairy cows 50 years ago.

The “survivors,” as Taylor termed them, have made it through federal herd buyouts and milk price fluctuations, culture change and a decreasing demand for a good old glass of milk. Taylor watched many of these changes first hand as New Hampshire’s agriculture commissioner for 25 years.

“A huge contraction of the dairy industry,” is how Taylor described it.

Dairy decrease

At Taylor’s own farm 46 years ago, things began simple enough with just two calves an 10 sheep.

“My late wife used to say it was a 4-H program that went haywire,” he said.

Back then, Taylor Brothers Farm was in good company fighting what Taylor said is a natural obstacle to dairy farms in New Hampshire: the state’s gravelly, acidic soils aren’t as conducive to growing and farming as, say, Vermont’s clay, lime-rich soils. Geologically, New Hampshire just isn’t as cut out for it.

“In New Hampshire, it’s a hostile environment for dairy farming,” said Taylor. The Connecticut Valley – where his farm is – and to a lesser extent, the Merrimack Valley, are where farms can make it, he said.

But by the time Taylor became agriculture commissioner in 1982, more barriers appeared.

“A lot of people aged out – kids didn’t want to continue farming,” he said. Add in the constant price pressures of a global dairy market – where, in a surplus year, extra milk is literally dumped out and thrown away – and Taylor said dairy became a less and less viable business.

During a price-drop period in the 1980s, under a whole-herd buyout program approved by U.S. Congress in 1985, farmers agreed to slaughter or sell off their herds and stop dairying for five years in exchange for federal payments.

“We lost at that point 20 percent of farms in one year’s time,” said Taylor.

More farms followed, leaving behind only the 251 dairy farms in the most recent USDA agricultural census. Those that remain, Taylor said, have grown ever-more productive through genetics, technology and improved cow health.

“They’re damned good at what they do,” Taylor said.

Dairy farms in New Hampshire today are mostly of two types. “You’ve got the little guys like this,” said Taylor of his own, 30-cow operation, adding that small dairies have other enterprises like maple sugaring and cheesemaking to survive.

“And then you have the big guys,” he said. Farms with between 400 and 600 milking cows, who, Taylor added, “keep getting bigger.” According to the Census, there’s just one dairy in New Hampshire that has between 1,000 and 2,499 milking cows – it’s Forbes Farm in Lancaster, which has more than 1,300 cows.

Pizza economics

Big or small, this year is another tough one on dairy farms. In the U.S., prices have plummeted from a high of $25.70 per 100 pounds (close to 12 gallons) in September 2014, to $15.30 for the same amount in March 2016.

 

Taylor recently sold off a number of his farm’s cows in order to produce less milk and to concentrate on his value-added products, like maple syrup and cheese.

Overall, Taylor said global market forces – including the strong U.S. dollar – are to blame.

The last time prices were this low was in 2009. The recession cut down of disposable income, which meant people were going out to eat less.

Consequently, they were eating less pizza, and there was a lower demand for cheese. “Pizza is a huge consumer of milk,” said Taylor.

Every year, people drink less and less milk Taylor said, and the numbers back him up: USDA statistics show that in 1975, the average person drank 247 pounds – or 494 eight ounce glasses – of milk per year.

In 2013, that number was at 165 pounds per capita, or 330 glasses of milk per person.

The same statistics show that dairy as an overall industry has grown steadily over the same time period, especially in yogurt and cheese products.

“We’ve gone crazy for Greek yogurt,” Taylor said.

Each person in the U.S. – on average – consumed 539 pounds of dairy in 1975 and consumed 605 pounds in 2013.

Cow culture

Over his lifetime, Taylor has seen at lot of changes when it comes to cows. Perhaps the saddest part about dairy industry changes, he said, is the loss of a certain culture.

Before 1959, when milk started to be collected in large, expensive bulk tanks and pumped into refrigerated tanker trucks on their way to places like the Concord Hood plant, small family dairies flourished all over the state.

“Up to that time in the ‘50s, if you had 20 cows, had a garden, had pigs . . . you were almost self sufficient,” said Taylor. “It was a way of life.”

Farmers would milk their cows by hand and use 40-quart cans, submerged in cold water, to store it.

“People now have them on their back porches with a geranium in them,” Taylor said of the cans.

With the newer, less physically cumbersome technology, thousands of New England farms couldn’t afford the bulk tanks, and closed. “It was an enormous cultural, social impact from a business decision,” Taylor said.

A local auctioneer who sold many of the cows and departing farms once told Taylor, “Basically I sold out a way of life.”

Nowadays, Taylor said it makes him sad to see kids ordering soda instead of milk in a restaurant. There’s less connection between animal and people, too, as agriculture becomes industrialized in places like Idaho, Texas and Kansas.

Cows, Taylor said, “are a number” and rarely named, since there are so many of them on a given farm. They are usually treated with respect, he added, since if they aren’t well cared for, they don’t produce as much milk.

“It goes straight to the bottom line,” said Taylor.

In New Hampshire where farms are smaller and dairying is still mostly “in harmony” with the landscape, some of the old culture still remains. At Taylor Brothers Farm, a few cows receive names, with a recent emphasis on the gouda, jack and colby cheese they make. The local food movement has helped preserve businesses like Taylor’s.

“Most people like to have some dairy farms in their midst,” said Taylor.

For the few that are left here, it’s a treasured occupation, even in difficult years like 2016.

“There’s something about it that’s hard to explain – at the end of the day, there’s a product,” said Taylor. “People love it.”

 

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

 




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