Documentary shows plight of state’s dairy farms

The Greenfield Recorder, June 09, 2017, by Richie Davis.

SHELBURNE — It’s not easy to forget any of the half-dozen or so dairy farms that have stopped making milk over the past few decades, just in the Patten District alone — especially if you look out on the view from John and Carolyn Wheeler’s Wheel-View Farm, which was one of them.

“It was a really hard decision,” recalls Carolyn Wheeler of the decision to sell their dairy herd in 1988. She says they were simply exhausted from dairying. They had both grown up on dairy farms right here.

“We hadn’t had a day off in a year and a half,” says Ms. Wheeler, who had grown up on this Reynolds Road farm — one that has been in her family since 1896 — and from which you can look downhill on the former, 11-generation dairy farm on Coombs Hill Road where her husband was raised and where they now grow cattle. They wanted more time to spend with their children, who were then in middle school.

“You can’t just complain, you have to look at other options,” said Ms. Wheeler, a member of the Shelburne Agricultural Committee, which together with the Our Family Farms milk cooperative will show the documentary, “Forgotten Farms” Sunday, June 11, at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls to raise awareness about Massachusetts dairy farmers’ fight for survival.

“The same old, same old doesn’t make it anymore,” she said, reflecting on their 2002 decision, after pursuing careers in teaching, to buy three beef cattle to keep their land open. Today, they raise about 140 belted Galloway and Murray Grey cattle on their 350 acres and another 100 rented acres, for sale at Green Fields and McCusker’s markets, Wagon Wheel restaurant and West End Pub, as well as other outlets in the state.

The showing of the documentary — preceded by an opportunity to view old photos of farms in town and followed by panel discussion with the filmmakers and experts in farm history and farmland protection — could be thought of as presenting “dismal” news, Ms. Wheeler said.

But, she pointed to opportunities to look at a variety of ways to keep pastureland open around town and the region. In addition to farms like theirs, which have switched to raising beef — over which farmers have more control than milk — others have succeeded by producing and selling value-added products like yogurt, cheese and ice cream.

Or there are those who have switched to raising sheep or goats, and others are growing hay, rather than see the land give way to house lots and further fragmentation of the open space and wildlife habitat it provides.

Other opportunities — converting to organic milk production or taking control of milk marketing, as the 20-year-old Our Family Farms cooperative has done — can help to keep dairy farms in operation, and help continue the legacy of cows dotting hillsides like those seen from the Wheeler’s farm.

But that doesn’t exactly reduce the struggle of dairy farmers, says Warren Facey of Leyden, whose Bree-Z-Knoll Farm is one of four Our Family Farms members.

“The movie talks about what’s happening to dairy farms, said Facey, who is executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Fairy Farmers and will be one of the panelists at the film event.

Bree-Z-Knoll, which Facey started in 1972, milks 160 cows, but he said 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.

“We’re paying to do this,” said Facey, who farms on about 600 acres in Leyden and Greenfield with his son and daughter-in-law. “When you get your roots in this deep, it’s hard to walk away.”

And while the milk marketing co-op has provided its members with added income, depending on how much time they’re willing to work on marketing, he said, “It’s another job.”

One perennial problem for the co-op has been that it has to pay a processor to homogenize, pasteurize and bottle its milk.

“If we owned our own plant we’d be way ahead,” said Facey, although he pointed to a bigger problem: the decline in fluid milk consumption overall.

Some of the co-op’s original members have left dairy farming, part of the general exodus from dairying even as other types of agriculture have become more attractive in Massachusetts. Facey guessed that only about 140 dairy farmers remain statewide; About four decades ago, there were 125 in Franklin County alone.

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 fewer than 2,000 left — “These people just keep milking cows,” said “Forgotten Farms” director David Simonds of Williamstown. “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.”