Dairy farm film to be shown to Congress

The Recorder, January 4, 2018, by Richie Davis

A Western Mass. documentary film about New England’s “forgotten” dairy farms has had 70 showings around the region since it was first introduced a year and a half ago. It’s now headed to be shown at the U.S. Capitol next week to remind members of Congress that the plight of dairy farmers hasn’t gotten any easier.

“Forgotten Farmers,” which was produced by Williams College professor Sarah Gardner and directed by David Simonds of Williamstown, was championed by U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., after an August showing outside of Worcester where he was a member of the post-screening discussion panel. McGovern arranged for its screening Monday evening in the Congressional Visitor Center Auditorium with a panel that will include Simonds and Gardner as well as Darryl and Lucinda Williams of Hatfield’s Luther Belden Farm, Cris Coffin of the nonprofit Land for Good, Northeast Dairy Farmers Cooperatives Senior Policy Adviser Bob Gray, and Lorette Picciano of the group Rural Coalition.

Warren Facey of Leyden, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers, said the state probably lost five to 10 dairy farmers since “Forgotten Farms” was released in June 2016. The 150 or so that remain across the state compares 125 in Franklin County alone about 40 years ago.

“The importance of going down there is just to boost awareness,” said Darryl Williams, who milks about 160 cows and estimates that last year’s prices paid are about $2 per dozen-gallon hundredweight below production costs, with predictions that this year’s prices will be lower. While the showing may not have any direct impact on the new federal Farm Bill, “It’s good to have them understand what’s going on,” said Williams, who appears in the 65-minute documentary that shows how dairy farmers have been largely left out of the renaissance that has made heroes out of growers of specialty crops.

“I don’t think people understand what we do,” said Williams, a 13th generation farmer says in the film as his wife jokes, “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 speaking on next week’s panel, Williams told The Recorder, “All’s we’re asking is for a little help in those years when it’s really bad,” referring to the Margin Protection insurance program that’s meant to help dairy farmers when the federally-set price they’re paid falls below their production costs.

That program, into which the nation’s farmers paid roughly $73 million last year but received only about $700,000 in payments, left many farmers frustrated, according to Gray, whose Northeast Dairy Farmers Cooperatives represents four co-operatives from Maryland to Maine. He said that although the Northeast continues to lose dairy farms because of a drop in milk consumption, an oversupply of milk around the country and increased global competition, production levels have been stable over time, with farms growing in size and improving efficiency.

“These guys know how to cut costs,” he said.

The documentary, which has been included in 15 film festivals around the region and won top honors at the 2016 New England Indy Film Fest, is scheduled to air on Vermont public television in February, according to Simonds.

Coffin, who said the New England congressional delegation has been “uniformly supportive of dairy farmers that are good for the region,” added, “It’s good to bring a message about fairy farming generally to that audience, and hope they’ll keep that in their minds when they’re drafting the Farm Bill.”

Watch the trailer here.