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‘Destruction of a culture’ – Taylor Farm to cease milking, selling off its herd

  • Steve Taylor of Taylor Farm in Meriden explains why the family has sold most of its dairy herd. The family started the farm in 1970. Taylor served as commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture from 1982 to 2007. JENNIFER HAUCK photos / Valley News

  • Andrew Kuhre, a herdsmen at the Taylor Farm in Meriden, moves a bull and heifers into a pasture. The farm has sold most of its dairy herd. Kuhre has been working at the farm on and off since 2004.

  • Bill, Rob and Jim Taylor hold two steer calves at the Taylor Farm in Meriden, N.H., circa 1976. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)  Jennifer Hauck



Valley News 
Monday, June 18, 2018

During a quarter-century as New Hampshire’s commissioner of agriculture, Steve Taylor witnessed the closing of hundreds of dairy farms across the state.

“At the end of 1982, there were over 500 dairy farms in New Hampshire,” Taylor said, citing the year he started in the post. “Now there’s barely 100. So we’ve cleared out four-fifths of them.”

Now 79, Taylor is watching his family’s own herd of milking shorthorns and Holsteins get broken up and sold, as his three adult sons prepare to wind down the commercial milking operation of Taylor Farm in Meriden.

“I grieve over every farm going out because it’s part of a continuum of the destruction of a culture,” Taylor said, sitting at his kitchen table and surrounded by a stack of albums containing photos of a vibrant dairy farm landscape that is now rapidly vanishing.

“It began after World War II,” he said. “Here in Plainfield, I think in 1946, there were 46 locations that shipped milk to the commercial market. Forty-six! And we’re down to one, and that’s McNamara’s.”

It’s been three years since milk prices crashed, Taylor said, and still, there’s no price recovery in sight. It was time for the family – sons Jim, Bill and Rob are the major shareholders – to cut its losses.

“We’ve got the maple operation. We’ve got the cheese operation,” Taylor said. “And those two were feeding the cows. And the milk leaving the cows was not making any money. So they made a hard-nosed business decision to exit milking cows, stop doing that, and keep the cheese business going and keep the maple going.”

Taylor’s weathered skin was partially covered by a T-shirt emblazoned with the logos of Cabot and Agri-Mark, the northeastern dairy cooperative that buys the farm’s milk. But early last week, the Taylors loaded about 35 of their 55 milk cows – the heart of the herd – onto a truck headed for an Amish farm in Lancaster County, Pa.

Over the course of his life, Taylor said, he’s watched the landscape around him change, as hundreds of hill farms have reverted to forest. He remembers baling hay in areas that are now covered in 30-foot-tall trees.

Taylor and his youngest son, farm manager Rob Taylor, who also works as executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, say low milk prices are just the latest blow from a system that’s seems designed to drive New England’s dairy farmers out of the fields they love.

“We’re sort of executing a plan that we’ve been forced into,” Rob Taylor said. “The dairy industry has been on a downward slide for a long time.”

The current price of a hundredweight, or 11.6 gallons, of milk – less than $16 – is comparable to what the Taylors got in the late 1980s, but the cost of labor and other inputs are much higher.

That’s a losing game, Rob Taylor said.

“It’s at a level that’s not sustainable for a small operation,” he said. “I would argue it’s not sustainable for any operation.”

Steve Taylor said his health also has become an obstacle to caring for the herd, particularly since he suffered a heart incident a year ago that caused him to reduce his role in the daily feeding and milking.

“Basically, I’m aged out of it,” he said. “I’m 79 years old. How many people aged 79 get up in the morning and do farm work? It’s a diminishing corps.”

For the Taylor family, farming has been a labor of love ever since Steve and his late wife, Gretchen Taylor, bought the 26-acre parcel of land that was undeveloped and covered with “puckerbrush,” a farming term for low-value growth like buckthorn.

“I grew up in Plainfield,” Steve Taylor said. “My father was a schoolteacher but he was a farmer on the side. I wanted my boys – they were little fellas – to have that same experience I had.”

But what started as a few animals – “I think two calves and 10 sheep,” Steve Taylor said – gradually grew into a larger business concern.

“November 1976 was when we started milking as a commercial dairy farm,” Steve Taylor said. “The boys took over more and more of the responsibilities. They were in grade school, high school, college.”

But only rarely did a Taylor look to the farm for his livelihood. Steve Taylor worked for the state until 2007; Jim Taylor worked as Enfield’s planning and zoning administrator and is now the public works director in Enfield; Bill Taylor took a job with the Meriden Village Water District (he’s now the chief operator, as well as the town fire chief); and before taking his job with the chamber, Rob Taylor worked at Catamount Brewery in Windsor and Red River Computer Co. in Claremont.

In between shifts at work and sleep, there was always farmwork to be done.

“In the ’90s and early 2000s, we worked our tails off. We were milking as many as 85,” Bill Taylor said. “We made a lot of milk.”

But the problem was that everybody was making a lot of milk.

Steve Taylor said a national trend toward scaling up, combined with new cow management techniques that have nearly doubled the per-cow milk production, have flooded the market with milk and ended the days when a small farmer could put a kid through college with the proceeds of a large vegetable garden and a small herd of milk cows.

“When the price is good, the incentive is there to add more cows and make more milk, and build up your equity or pay off your debts,” Steve Taylor said. “And when prices are bad, the only route is to make more milk to cover your expenses. So you’re just doomed to producing more milk over and over, around and around.”

Taylor said that the Canadian agricultural system, which limits each farmer’s milk production to match the needs of the market, has proved to provide a far more reliable financial model for dairy farms.

“Down here, we don’t have that. We have this perverse system,” he said. “It’s really insane.”