Editorial: How to save the state’s dairy farms

Sunday, June 24, 2018

It happens in slow motion. Milk prices drop, the economy sours, the cows are sold and junipers begin pulling the corners of the pastures tight. Views of the state’s famous stone walls close like the shutter of an old-fashioned camera. A few years without mowing, unless the land’s bulldozed for house lots, and gray birch, sumac and popple grow head high. It’s great for grouse and woodcock, not so great for local economies tied to agriculture.

Change is a constant, but when that change involves the loss of a dairy farm the landscape and local culture is altered. If the land remains open, the fields and pastures are put to another agricultural use. But gone from the hillsides are the black-and-white and caramel-colored cows that put the pastoral in paintings.

We were saddened, but not surprised, to hear that Steve Taylor, the state’s agriculture commissioner for a quarter-century and the face of farming in New Hampshire, and his sons are giving up dairy farming. There’s no money in it anymore, only endless work and a gradual erosion of equity built up over generations.

In 1982, when Taylor, a former journalist, became agriculture commissioner, the state had 500 dairy farms. Today, according to the Granite State Dairy Promotion Association, it has 94. Central New Hampshire has lost its share, but Greater Concord is blessed by having at least a half-dozen surviving traditional dairy farms, which means milking cows, not sheep, goats or some other mammal.

Dairy farms are disappearing, as Taylor told our sister paper, the Valley News, where he once served as managing editor, because a federal program sets the price of milk but does not control the supply. When milk prices drop, farmers add more cows to offset the loss, which then keeps prices down. Milk prices that averaged $24 per hundredweight in 2014 have fallen to $15, less than the cost of production.

The answer lies in scrapping the current system in favor of one like Canada’s, where both the price and the amount of milk each farm can produce is determined by demand. There’s been talk of doing just that for decades, but little has changed. Dairy farming remains a feast or famine business. Some states offer price supports to help preserve their dairy farms. New Hampshire does not.

Communities can help farms survive by granting them a measure of property tax relief. Whether to do so is a fit subject for debate. Beyond that, patronizing local farms is the best way to help them survive.

In 1919, Concord alone had 100 dairy farms. Today it has two, Bartlett Dairy Farm in East Concord, which sells raw milk, and Morrill Farm in Penacook. Milk and cream processed at the H.P. Hood plant in Concord is produced locally. Highway View Farm in Boscawen sells sweet corn sold in season as well as milk. Brookford Farm in Canterbury has a store with a range of products that’s open seven days per week. Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton offers milk, butter and cheese. Hopkinton is also home to Pine Hill Farm. In Loudon, Towle Farm remains, as does Yeaton Farm in Epsom. Many farms supply CSAs, community supported agriculture programs that provide members a regular supply of vegetables and other foodstuffs. Joining one helps New Hampshire’s farmers.

No one can bring back the past, with its sweeping fields, thousands of barns and trains whistling at milk stops. But everyone can do a little something to help keep the farms we have.