Editorial: It’s not too late to save dairy farms

  • Yeaton Farm in Epsom is one of the many struggling dairies in New Hampshire. Just this year, 19 of the state's 120 dairy farms have closed due to continued low milk prices, now compounded by this summer's drought. ELODIE REED

Thursday, September 08, 2016

One by one, dairy farms, the stars of New Hampshire agriculture, are going dark. When they do, the landscape changes. Up north, pastures give way to brush, down south, to houses row on row. The dairy cows go, too, and we know where but would rather not say. Communities take another step from agricultural to suburban. Already towns that had a half-dozen or dozen dairy farms have one or two or none: Concord has two, Hopkinton and Canterbury two, Boscawen and Weare one, Henniker and Dunbarton none.

According to state Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill, 19 of the state’s 120 remaining dairy farms have closed in the past four years, victims of high feed costs, low milk prices, drought and property taxes. That’s down from 226 20 years ago, and some 1,300 in the 1950s.

The American dairy industry is its own worst enemy. Its response when milk prices drop has been to try to maintain income by producing even more milk, which makes matters worse.

Efficiency continues to increase. Breeding has greatly increased the amount of milk each cow can produce. Technology, robotic feeding, milking, manure handling and the like, allow milk to be removed and processed with fewer people. Big farms continue to get bigger and small ones disappear.

The federal response to the periodic crises, loan programs, grants, milk price support systems and the like, tend to be short-lived and inadequate, since the big producers and corporate end users use their economic clout to lobby Congress to keep prices low.

More and more states and towns have recognized that if they want to save their remaining dairy farms and all they contribute to the landscape, culture, economy and quality of life, they’ll have to do it themselves.

But not New Hampshire – at least not yet.

Massachusetts has its own dairy tax credit program, which pays farmers when federal milk prices fall below $15 per hundredweight. It has saved more than a few farms in the past year alone.

Vermont exempts active farm buildings from some property taxation and gives favorable tax treatment for farm houses.

Maine and Connecticut have dairy farm support programs. Maine towns can choose to offer tax exemptions to farms willing to enter into conservation easements for 20 years. Connecticut does something similar. Buying local, whenever possible, will also help.

New Hampshire has a grant program on the books to preserve dairy farms during milk price crises, but it was only funded once. A decade or so ago, the $2 million in grants kept a number of farms in business. Since then, the state has lost proportionately more farms than its neighbors.

When enough farms fail, the feed, farm equipment, banks with expertise in farm lending and the rest of the agricultural infrastructure shrivel. Even the language heard in a community changes as the vocabulary of agriculture disappears.

To truly save the nation’s small dairy farms will require a milk price support system that actually works and industry recognition that increasing production is exactly the wrong response to a decrease in prices. That won’t be easy.

The big farms that have the sway in Congress, former agricultural commissioner Steve Taylor says, are now owned by stockbrokers and insurance companies. The congressional delegations of small farm states will have to unite if a proper price support system is ever to be created.

Current Commissioner Merrill, who, like Taylor, is a dairy farmer, says it’s not too late to save farms in dire straights if the Legislature funds New Hampshire’s rescue program soon. If it takes a year or more, a few of the remaining 101 farms will fail. How many? No one knows, but once gone, they won’t be back.