Columnist Claire Morenon: The case for local dairy
Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2019.
Dairy farms have long been the backbone of agriculture in the Northeast. Today, unfettered production and a wholesale pricing system that undervalues milk threaten this vital industry in our state — a quiet crisis that is changing local agriculture in ways that are invisible to most of us.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the New England landscape was dotted with dairy farms. The 1920 Agricultural Census reported 22,551 farms housing a total of 147,331 dairy cows in Massachusetts, representing 70 percent of all farms in the state. The milk these cows produced was largely processed on-farm and sold to nearby neighbors.
As the 20th century progressed, agriculture changed in Massachusetts and nationwide. Federal policies encouraged the consolidation of farm ownership and prioritized specific commodity crops like soy and corn, mechanization increased and rural populations decreased.
The 2017 Ag Census, released in April of this year, counts 220 dairy farms in Massachusetts, raising a total of 12,071 dairy cows. One hundred and forty of those farms are primarily engaged in milk production, representing under 2 percent of all the farms in the state. They are vital to our agricultural system, stewarding 10 percent of all agricultural land and account for 9 percent of agricultural sales.
The Ag Census also revealed a sobering truth: As they have for decades, dairy farms are fighting for survival. Between 2012 and 2017, we lost 21 percent of dairy farms in Massachusetts. This is reflective of the crisis facing dairy farms throughout the country; 20 percent of dairy farms, equal to 10,200 businesses, closed their doors nationwide during the same period.
The core reason for these losses is simple — dairy farmers are not paid enough to cover their costs. The wholesale price for milk is set on a federal level using an opaque and very complex system based on how demand for a range of dairy commodities interacts with international supply.
In recent decades, the price paid to farmers for their milk has stagnated, which has created a ruinous gap between the income farmers can earn for their milk and what it costs them to produce it.
When dairy farms close, their farmland is at risk of development. Agricultural support businesses that all local farmers depend on, such as tractor repairs and sales, feed stores, and fertilizer dealers, falter. And eventually, consumers can expect to see milk in grocery stores that has been shipped in from around the world, rather than produced right here by our neighbors.
The practical impact is alarming, and still it doesn’t capture the depth of these losses. Dairy farmers are deeply committed to their animals, their land, and to the legacy of the farmers who came before them. Dairy farmers work hard every day, and they’re proud of the high-quality milk they produce to feed families around the Northeast. When a dairy farm closes, it’s almost always because of an impossible financial picture, and it’s a deeply personal tragedy to the farmers and their neighbors.
Last summer, 400 dairy farmers and industry experts gathered in Albany for a National Dairy Summit, hoping to identify possible solutions to the dairy crisis. The group discussed Canada’s supply management system, which was designed to manage milk production to ensure a sustainable price for farmers, along with many other possibilities. The summit didn’t solve the crisis in a day, but it proved two things: First, that dairy farmers are serious about working hard and collaboratively to save their industry, and second, that alternative systems that value farmers are possible with enough political will behind it.
Even as dairy farms have faltered, milk remains a regional product — Massachusetts farmers produced a whopping 23.4 million gallons of milk in 2018, and most of it is sold into a regional wholesale market that bottles and processes milk for sale within the Northeast. So when you pick up a gallon of any brand, you can expect that it was produced in Massachusetts and neighboring states and that your purchase is supporting local farmers. If you’re curious, every jug of milk is labeled with a code and you can find where it was bottled at whereismymilkfrom.com.
We’re fortunate to have a handful of dairy farms making their own cheese and yogurt or bottling their own milk, and you should look for those products when you shop too, of course! You can also get to know the dairy farms near you that have farm stores and ice cream shops, and support these small businesses as they work to preserve the productive, important, and proud tradition of dairy farming in Massachusetts.
Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).