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New film showcases ‘forgotten’ dairy farms

  • Ed Carter, left, and Travis Whitcomb are Ashfield farmers in the new documentary, “Forgotten Farmers.” Contributed photo

  • Robert Williams of the Mt. Toby Farm in Sunderland feeding his cows before milking them again in the evening. Recorder staff/Paul Franz

  • Robert Williams of the Mt. Toby Farm in Sunderland hand feeds some grain to a days-old calf. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Robert Williams of the Mt. Toby Farm in Sunderland greets one of his Holsteins in the barn on Thursday. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Dairy farmer Robert Williams of the Mt. Toby Farm in Sunderland heads back to work on Thursday between milkings.

  • Robert Williams of the Mt. Toby Farm in Sunderland checks on the girls on Thursday afternoon. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dairy farms, which totaled more than 125 in Franklin County 40 years ago, are now fewer than 35 and slowly dwindling. Despite a new appetite for local farms and food, cow farms have been left out of the celebration of local, says a new documentary about the plight of dairying in the region.

“There’s a huge disconnect,” says Sarah Gardner, who produced “Forgotten Farms” after realizing her land-use students at Williams College may be typical of the larger population as they overlook Williamstown’s two large dairy farms. She and director David Simonds of Williamstown wanted to spotlight production dairies, which produce the bulk of the local food that’s consumed and care for the bulk of agricultural land around New England, though they aren’t celebrated as part of the so-called “new food movement.”

Despite a complex federal pricing system that puts small, New England dairy farmers at a disadvantage — causing 10,000 dairy farms to go out of business over the past 50 years, with only 2,000 left — “These people just keep milking cows,” said Simonds, who worked on one of Williamstown’s dairy farms when he was in high school. “With their relentless determination to farm, we should kind of get on our knees and bow down because they’re willing to do this. If we lose them all, it’s going to be tragic for all agriculture,” since the infrastructure for farming, including equipment sales, depends on dairying.

“I don’t think people understand what we do,” said Darryl Williams, a 13th-generation farmer on Hatfield’s Luther Belden Farm, one of a handful of dairy farmers in the film.

His wife, Lucinda, jokes to the camera, “There are only three people who understand how the price of milk is set. Two of them are dead, and the other one doesn’t remember.”

In Franklin County, where dairy farms account for 4.3 percent of farms overall, “value-added” products like cheese on Warwick’s Chase Hill Farm, organic yogurt from Hawley’s Sidehill Farm and raw milk at Shelburne’s Davenport Farm and Gill’s Upinngil Farm have let farmers to diversify their operations for added profit.

But in the case of one enterprising farm, Hager Brothers in Colrain, the family’s decision to concentrate on a Route 2 market and orchard led to discontinuance of its dairying operation. (The farm is not included in the film.)

“You can’t expect to be diversified and support one half of your entity with the other half, because that just doesn’t make sense,” said farmer Albert “Chip” Hager of the family’s decision to sell off its 125-cow milking herd in February 2015. “We loved milking cows and would still like to do it, but the fact of life is that dollars and cents is what controls things.”

The Hagers, who tried selling raw milk but were barred under state law from selling it off their farm, “at the top of the hill, at the end of road,” also raises beef cattle and sells its maple products. And to help maintain its 650-acre hilltop farm, the family this year has begun growing 20 acres of popcorn.

Like other dairy farmers, Hager points to the federal pricing system as the underpinning for the crisis of New England dairy.

“There’s the inability of the farm to be able to control its price on wholesale end,” he said. “You’re buying everything retail and sell your milk wholesale, with no chance of having a say in what your wholesale price is. It just doesn’t work.”

Devastating

It was devastating to leave dairying, Hager said, yet, “The bottom line is it’s not good business sense to keep going until there’s nothing left.”

At 93, Sunderland dairy farmer James Williams — Darryl Williams’ uncle — still does chores around the 241-year-old Mount Toby Farm to keep busy, even though his 60-year-old son, Robert, runs the 180-acre operation with 100 milking cows.

“You wonder why you’re doing it, but you keep going,” says the younger Williams, whose daughters haven’t expressed interest in taking over as eighth-generation farmers. With milk prices paying about $14.50 dozen-gallon hundredweight and the cost of producing that milk in the “low 20s,” the farm loses money on every gallon.

So father and son point to their “antique” 30-year-old tractor, along with the newest, 11-year-old one, as one way they keep going.

“We don’t buy new equipment, so we get by,” says Robert, who along with his father is not among the farmers in the film. “Everything is 15 years or older.”

What is new are the solar panels on the barn roof, which have eliminated the farm’s $800-a-month electric bills since September.

“All these things you try to do to get ahead, you end up just standing still,” he said. “But you do that because you don’t want to start falling behind.”

Robert Williams, whose father helped originate the state Agricultural Preservation Restriction program to protect farmland, acknowledges that a lot of new farmers are drawn to the area, but says they’re mostly small, organic, niche-market farmers.

“We do feel like, ‘hey, what about us?’ We see them out there with a vanload of people hoeing 10 rows of corn. Is that sustainable?”

On the other hand, he said, even with help from a state tax credit program that helps dairy farmers by adding $11.80 per hundredweight to their milk prices in lean years, “Why would anybody want to take it over and look at our books and say, ‘You only made money three out of the last five years? That’s not good.”

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, has proposed increasing the available state tax credit, which many farmers say is critical to their staying in business, from $3 million to $5 billion. But he said he doesn’t believe it will increase as part of this year’s budget, given state finances.

Williams blamed dairy farmers themselves for being “their own worst enemy” by making more milk each time the prices plummet. Dairy farmers “fight for survival,” says the documentary, which premiered recently in the Berkshire International Film Festival and will be headed to more festivals over the next year before being shown to groups locally.

Those farmers have to be masters of a host of trades. They are para-veterinarians, mechanics, carpenters and nutritionists, and they have to work 12-hour days or longer, seven days a week.

“I’ve never met a harder working bunch of people in my life,” former Massachusetts Agriculture Commissioner Gregory Watson says in the film.

The farms, which produce most of the milk consumed in New England, are also economic engines in their home communities, with nearly $8.3 million in milk sales in Franklin County alone, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Each cow produces $13,000 to $14,000 in economic activity per year, says Robert Wellington, chief economist for the Agri-Mark milk-marketing cooperative. And Franklin County’s dairy farms are populated by 2,335 cows, according to the agricultural census.

“When a dairy farm goes out of business, there’s a million dollars in local economic activity that’s gone,” says Clarissa “Cris” Coffin, policy director for Land to Good. “I think it would be hard to have a more resilient and revitalized farm and food economy if it doesn’t have dairy farms as its backbone.”

“My grandfather milked 12 cows, brought the milk into the cellar of the big farmhouse here where he had a milk-cream separator, and made butter,” says retired Williamstown farmer Dave Towne in the film. “And with the income from that, he sent six kids to college. From the income from my wife and I and the last 20 years or so, we were milking 125 cows and were sending 2 million pounds of milk a year down the road and going broke. Same farm.”

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, the Deerfield-based nonprofit that’s helped reinvigorate Pioneer Valley’s farm economy, has been focusing more recently on dairy farms, says Claire Morenon, a CISA program coordinator.

“I think the film did a good job of enabling to people to hear from more (dairy) farms,” she said. Unlike most of the farms CISA deals with, dairy farms wholesale their product and so haven’t been part of the the “rising tide” of appreciation for local farms.

“For us, a lot of our messaging has been geared to educating consumers why local food is important, empowering them to make decisions that impact local farms positively,” Morenon said. “There’s less of a clear consumer step for how to support those (dairy) farms.”

But now CISA is trying to find way to share some of their stories.

“We’re really lucky to have farms that are processing and selling their own milk, and making their own cheese and yogurt,” she said, but there are a lot more farms producing vast majority of milk — 27 million gallons of milk a year produced in Massachusetts. “A lot of that is being sold here, not just from people whose farm names are on bottles. For people to choose to support farms that are processing their own milk, that’s great,” whether from the Our Family Farms cooperative, Hadley’s Mapleline Farm, South Hadley’s McCray’s Farm or raw milk from any number or local farms.

“But milk is a uniquely regional product even if you’re buying a loss-leader store brand milk,” Morenon said. New England’s dairy infrastructure is “a pretty amazing feat,” even if the federal price mechanism does severely squeeze the region’s farmers.

Some good news

With a commodity that represents 14 percent of all of agricultural sales and 18 percent of the farmland in the Pioneer Valley, all is not bleak.

Farmers like Bar-Way Farms in Deerfield and Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley are installing methane digestion systems to use their cow manure to lower energy costs, while others produce their own premium ice cream, artisinal cheese and other products. And although they are by far the exception, there are still young farmers, like Ed Carter and Travis Whitcomb of Carter & Whitcomb Dairy in Ashfield, who started their own farm to make milk.

“We started milking cows 10 days after we graduated college,” said Carter, who grew up in Ashfield in a farming family, worked on the 120 acres of Watson Road farmland he now rents with Whitcomb, whom he met at Delaware Valley University. They put together a milking herd of 85 Jerseys and Holsteins. “We’re coming into our fifth year now.”

Carter, who majored in agricultural business while Whitcomb — from Tunbridge, Vt. — majored in dairy science, says, “We came at good point in the market, when the price was on the upswing, $26, $27 (a hundredweight) milk. Then the downswing came, guys flooded the market. It just happened. We’re at $14 milk now.”

The farm, which rents another 80 acres around Ashfield, produces 10,000 pounds of milk every other day, says Carter, who figures that’s lots more than the 21 dairy farms that operated in town in his grandfather’s day. Yet, despite the sagging price, both 26-year-old farmers say they aren’t discouraged.

“We’re looking to milk more cows,” says Whitcomb. “New England is able to make it on the margins. I look at the mass of people who need milk products. There is a place for niche markets, but there’s also a place for production agriculture.”

On the Web:

www.ForgottenFarms.org

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269