Dairy farming not a cash cow

The Recorder, February 16, 2018, by Richie Davis

Goblets of milk were raised for a toast back on Sept. 11, 1997, by members of the six farm families who had just created their own brand of milk made from their cows.

But there was nothing milquetoast about dairy farmers taking the bull by the horns and creating a Pioneer Valley Milk Marketing Cooperative to try to control prices they’re paid — prices that have fluctuated over the years but have often been, like now, several dollars per gallon below what it costs to make that milk.

“I’m so tired of someone else telling me what we get for our milk,” Sandie Facey of Leyden, the late wife of co-op member Warren Facey, said at the first brainstorming meeting of dairy farmers in November 1996, as the federally set price for a gallon of milk sank another 17 cents. “People have to think more seriously about doing something like this.”

The “this,” discussed by about 50 farmers at that first meeting was converting to organic production to sell their milk under the premium Organic Valley label.

That idea didn’t survive, but the cooperative selling as Our Family Farms, has.

So, 20 years later, as the number of Franklin County dairy farms has thinned from 73 to about 35, Our Family Farms is still toasting their cooperative effort as a success, although the players have also been reduced a bit, and has changed. And a key element — processing their milk themselves at their own plant — has remained elusive.

Today, members of the co-op produces its milk in New London, Conn., and sells about 5,200 gallons a week at area supermarkets and dozens of smaller retailers, restaurants and other outlets around the Pioneer Valley and beyond. The co-op members say they’ve been helped tremendously by banding together.

“There’s no question, it is a great benefit,” said Facey, who with his son Randy and daughter-in-law Angie, run Bree-Z-Knoll Farm, a Leyden operation with 320 Holstein and brown Swiss. It is the largest farm in the co-op. “It’s been enough to keep all four of these farms afloat; not solvent, but afloat.”

Angie Facey goes further: “Without Our Family Farms, I can probably guarantee most of us would be out of business right now.”

Between the four co-op members, they own 2,100 acres of farmland and 750 cows and employ 15 full-time workers.

Our Family Farms milk, which sells at area stores for anywhere between 20 cents and 70 cents more a gallon than other brands, is sold in plastic gallon containers and half-gallon cartons that show bucolic scenes of grazing cows and have featured through the years the stories of individual members. Sales of all milk have been down. But having the co-op earns member farms an extra $30,000 or so annually, says Facey. That bonus has been as low as $10,000 through the years and sometimes has reached to $40,000, he adds.

Bree-Z-Knoll, which Facey started in 1972, milks 160 cows, but he says the roughly $16 price that farmers are paid for a dozen-gallon hundredweight of milk is about $4 less than it should be and at least $2 less than it costs to produce that milk.

Agri-Mark spokesman Doug Dimento said recently that estimates for this year are for milk prices to drop about one dollar lower, to about $15 for every dozen gallons that farmers produce — the lowest they’ve been in 20 years, when Our Family Farms was created.

Along with a state tax credit for dairy farmers, the tens of thousands of dollars Our Family Farms pays Bernardston farmer David Duprey each year, in part for work that his wife, Debbie, gets as co-op treasurer and attending events promoting the brand, “maybe allow me to break even,” says Duprey, adding that farmers like him lose roughly 75 cents to $1 on every gallon of milk they sell. “If we’re just living from milk check to milk check alone, we can’t really survive. Last year, it allowed me to pay my bills on time, but I didn’t buy any new toys (equipment.)”

Along with Bree-Z-Knoll and the Dupreys’ SunBrite Farm, co-op members include Larry and Karen Gould’s Gould Maple Farm and Mapledge Jerseys, both in Shelburne. Along the way, Warwick’s Chase Hill Dairy shifted to organic production, the Lilly Farm in Ashfield and Everett Farm in Williamsburg dropped out, as did The Farm School in Orange.

Bumps in the road

A key problem for the co-op was that from the outset, it has depended on outside processors — first Pioneer Dairy in Southwick, and since 1984, Guida dairy in New Britain, Conn. — to convert its raw milk into a marketable product.

“I wish we were apple farmers,” says Angie Facey. “If I had a basket of apples, I could sell them at the farmers market at a premium. But with milk, it’s hard to transport, so you have to put it in the correct package size for end-users. Schools use half pints; colleges use bag in a box. That makes it much more complicated. So much infrastructure is needed to process the milk.”

Having their own plant would allow the co-op to not only sell in various size containers, but also offer other dairy products as well.

Despite several attempt to set up its own manufacturing plant, where it could save on expensive hauling costs, handle its own production and allow the range of products to meet a variety of market demands, startup costs and other risks have stood in the way, say several members.

One solution that almost jelled in 2004, after three years of discussions, was a $6.25 million, state-of-the-art plant at the Greenfield Industrial Park for the milk co-op and Snow’s and Bart’s ice cream.

That site was a backup for a processing plant at the Snow’s factory on School Street in Greenfield, where then-owner Gary Schaefer envisioned using the local milk for its ice cream mixes.

Building a dairy processing plant is even more complex than building a different kind of factory, said CISA Special Project Director Margaret Christie, who has studied the issue closely.

“There’s a lot of oversight as well as food and safety concerns,” she said. Running a processing plant would add a heavy burden to people who are already busy running their farms as well as a marketing cooperative, and “there are federal pricing rules,” she said.

While Pioneer’s processing plant — which Our Family Farms tried unsuccessfully to buy before it went out of business — separated out the co-op’s milk, Guida co-mingles milk from the four local farms with all of its other milk. Any new plant the co-op plant built would be considered a “pooled” plant, with additional fees that would have to be paid into the federal market administrator.

Most recently, Randy and Angie Facey — the only representatives of the next generation among co-op members — have worked toward developing a processing plant on their Leyden Road property, Greenfield’s former Wright-View Farm, which the Faceys bought in 2014, as part of a new barn where they hoped to introduce robotic milking and set up a Vanguard Renewables methane digester to convert manure to electricity.

Those plans fell apart recently, following Eversource’s nine months of delayed hookup for Vanguard’s digester at Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield, according to Angie Facey. The roughly $2 million project grew too unattractive, she said, and the couple has scaled it back to their Leyden property, raising questions of the added risk versus benefit for members.

“We’re a co-op, which is beneficial, but once we put our milk together, we have to pay like $20,000 a month into the market administrator in Boston. It’s always been cost prohibitive to put up a plant collectively. That’s why it hasn’t happened.”

Christie adds, “I think it’s harder in dairying. It’s harder to be confident about the future. Dairy farms have been so threatened, the pricing structure is so stacked against them, we’ve lost so many of them, that making that investment is even harder.”

Bree-Z-Knoll moved on to considering a plant in Leyden, but complications have caused Facey to pull back on that project.

Still, despite what member Faith Williams says has been the disappointment of not being able to process their own milk, she says, “For me, it’s absolutely accomplished what we started off to accomplish. People who live in communities where our farms are located recognize the view they’re appreciating ever day. True, not every drop of milk in that container might be ours, but it’s that milk that’s allowing us to keep our farms out of development and operating as farms, supporting the local economy.”

Shelburne member Karen Gould admits, “It’s not a cash cow, that’s for sure. But it’s an incredible tribute just to have these farms existing, and any little tiny bit to support the farms, and this way of life.”