[Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture Greg] Watson said his agency also is looking at state grants to help farms develop business plans and ways to help farmers increase energy efficiency or use renewable energy to help lower the cost of production. Energy production also can be another "crop" for farms looking to remain economically viable. "Often wind turbines are a good way to bring in revenue," Gardner said. "I've talked to farmers who have said their cell tower is their best 'cow.' " Konecky picked up on Gardner's thought about diversified revenue streams. "Diversification is important -- whether it's raising beef on the side or putting up a cell tower or a wind turbine ... any type of diversification to bring another stream of income is important," she said.
WILLIAMSTOWN – There are many reasons for the decline of dairy farming in Western Massachusetts and just as many reasons why that trend should be reversed, according to a panel of farming experts who gathered at Williams College Sunday to discuss the challeges and solutions facing the region’s farms.
One thing all the panelists could agree on: Dairy farming is worth preserving.
“I think (land preservation) is basically what farmers do,” Williamstown farmer Win Chenail said. “We want to preserve the land. Most farmers will tell you they don’t want to see the land grow in brush and weeds and so forth. They’re very conscious of what they cultivate.
“The most important part of a farmer is his ability to manage the land in such a way that it will help produce cops and help financially and continually produce hay, corn, preservation, conservation and so on and so forth. It’s all part and parcel of what farmers do and enjoy.”
But sometimes, love is not enough.
“Berkshire County has lost about half the dairy farms in the last 25 years,” Environmental Studies professor Sarah Gardner said. “Statewide, 18 percent of the dairy land that has gone out of dairy has been developed… Most of the open land (in the county) is either owned or leased by a dairy farmer.”
Gardner teaches planning and policy at Williams College and is a member of the town’s Conservation Commission and Agriculture Commission. This spring, she wrote an article about the region’s dairy industry for Berkshire Living magazine, which sponsored Sunday’s discussion in the college’s Griffin Hall.
“Dairy farmers manage 92,000 acres statewide. By far, most of the farmland is being managed by dairy farmers. I believe we should have more agriculture in Massachusetts,” she said. “The price of oil is going to be prohibitive, the climate is going to be unstable. It’s important that we keep this land in agriculture, and right now it’s beign kept in agriculture mostly by dairy farmers.”
About three dozen community members attended the event, which featured Chenail, Gardner, Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture Greg Watson, state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi and Suzy Konecky, the creamery manager at Cricket Creek Farm, in a panel moderated by magazine editor Anastasia Stanmeyer.
The reasons for dairy’s decline in the region can be traced to a cultural shift in the middle of the 20th century, Watson said.
“In the last 50 years, there was a 90 percent decrease in farms in general in the state of Massachusetts,” he said. “There’s been a dramatic change. Certainly economics had a lot to do with it, and there was an attitude change, too… Back in the days when energy was fairly cheap and with our shorter growing seasons, there was a sense (farming) wasn’t worth protecting. It took an attitude shift that this was worth saving back in the ’70s.”
Today, most of the food – including fresh produce – consumed in the commonwealth is delivered by truck and by train from the Midwest, South and West. That includes fresh milk, although the state’s dairy farmers continue to meet about 18 percent of its dairy needs, Gardner reported.
But those farms that survive struggle with diminishing returns from a federal milk pricing system that is geared to meet the needs of much larger farms in other parts of the country.
“Most dairy farmers don’t set their own prices,” said Konecky, whose Cricket Creek operates on a different model, focusing on direct sales to consumers and value-added products. “(Conventional dairy farmers) are at the whim of the bulk milk prices. That’s what creates the dire situations for a lot of dairy farmers.”
Gardner’s article profiles one local dairy farm that is milking 125 cows and still going broke. The average conventional dairy farm in Massachusetts milks about 88, she said; Chenail said Chenail Brothers Dairy currently milks about 80 cows out of a herd of 170 and manages between 500 and 600 acres which the farm either owns or leases.
Like most dairy farmers, the Chenail family sells its milk to processors who take it to bottling plants to be pasteurized and either sold as milk or used in other dairy goods.
“In most cases, (the bulk price) is not even related to the cost of production in Massachusetts,” Watson said. “I honestly believe there are more people in the country who understand the theory of strings and quantum physics than how milk is priced.”
In the 1990s, when Watson served his first tour of duty as the state’s ag commissioner, Massachusetts challenged the Federal Milk Market Order but lost in the U.S. Supreme Court, Watson said.
Faced with a system that penalized the state’s dairy farms, Massachusetts devised its Dairy Farm Tax Credit Program, which allows a credit based on the volume of milk sold when the federally-mandated price drops below a state-determined “trigger price.”
“We can’t guarantee dairy farms a profit, but we should be able to guarantee at least that they break even,” Watson said. “You’ve got people paying more for bottled water than milk… The pivotal point in that discussion is really determining the cost of production that’s fair to Massachusetts farmers. … That’s what the association of dairy farmers is working on so at least there’s a baseline.”
The state can help in other ways.
Cariddi discussed a bill in the hopper that would pay back a portion of a state assessment farms paid in years past to help support the processors.
Watson told the audience that his department participated last year in a daylong symposium held by the Conservation Law Foundation to connect farmers with investors looking to support sustainable agriculture. Between 30 and 45 investors attended the event, he said.
“A lot of this is education,” Watson said. “We can play that role as matchmakers. … Now we need to do some investor tours – to get the investors out to look at various farms and see what those opportunities are.”
Cariddi said an economic development bill passed in Boston last year will help fund a soon-to-be-announced initiative by the Greenfield Economic Development Corporation that she said will spill over into Northern Berkshire County.
Watson said his agency also is looking at state grants to help farms develop business plans and ways to help farmers increase energy efficiency or use renewable energy to help lower the cost of production.
Energy production also can be another “crop” for farms looking to remain economically viable.
“Often wind turbines are a good way to bring in revenue,” Gardner said. “I’ve talked to farmers who have said their cell tower is their best ‘cow.’ ”
Konecky picked up on Gardner’s thought about diversified revenue streams.
“Diversification is important – whether it’s raising beef on the side or putting up a cell tower or a wind turbine … any type of diversification to bring another stream of income is important,” she said.
And Konecky took things a step further, arguing that conventional dairy farms might want to embrace the “new farm” movement typified by Cricket Creek Farm, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation that makes its own cheese and sells raw milk direct to consumers from about 25 cows.
“We get calls from farmers all the time who say, ‘we’re milking 120 cows, but what we’d really like is to milk 30 cows and sell raw milk or sell cheese,’ ” Konecky said. “We get a lot of questions from people who say … ‘we want to go small.’ ”
That suggestion helped highlight a division between the new farm movement and the conventional dairy farms
Watson said that the “buy local” movement, which the commonwealth supports, is unlikely to save traditional dairy farms.
“It doesn’t really lend itself to their operations,” he said. “Unless you’re going to branch off and do some of the value-added pieces. Conventional farms are not going to be able to benefit from that.”
The Northeast Organic Farming Association’s raw milk network coordinator Winton Pitcoff, who attended the discussion and participated from the audience, said Cricket Creek’s success could be replicated by more farms in the Commonwealth.
“You can’t dismiss Cricket Creek,” Pitcoff said. “They’re not an outlier. That model is not an outlier. It’s a took to keep farms alive. Raw milk is a tool to keep farms alive… Not one dairy in Massachusetts certified to sell raw milk has gone out of business. … Sales of raw milk doubled in the last four years in the state. We have the model all over the state and in the neighboring states. There are more dairy farms in Vermont with 10 cows or less than we have dairy farms in Massachusetts.”
Gardner said she supports CSA agriculture but noted that the model is not likely to fix the problems of the conventional dairy farms she profiled in her article.
“Most of the people are buying pasteurized milk,” she said. “If all our dairy farms shrunk and sold raw milk … that would put us in a position where we’d have to import even more of our milk from New York state.
“What percentage of Massachusetts consumers are buying raw milk?”
“It’s small, and it’s too small,” Pitcoff conceded.
In addition to her other efforts to support farming, Gardner serves on the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Food and Agriculture subcommittee. Through those efforts, she and her students last year conducted a survey of Northern Berkshire County farmers. Those discussions inspired her to write the article for Berkshire Living and begin work on a documentary film, “Forgotten Farms,” which she and collaborator Dave Simonds plan to complete next spring.
“We interviewed all eight – then nine – (dairy farms) in North Berkshire last summer,” Gardner said. “We’ve lost one since then. It was depressing to learn that most of the farms didn’t have succession plans. They’ve been in operation, in some cases, for 200 years or more, and they didn’t have a plan to operate in the future.
“We should put all of our energies right now into keeping them going or finding someone else to lease those lands to keep them going. I don’t know the answer. That’s one reason I wrote the article.”
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