Local farmers talk milk pricing, labor with Richard Neal

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 15, 2018, by

Congressman Richard Neal heard directly from farmers affected by federal policies as part of a tour Tuesday intended to help him understand the interests of those he represents.

Neal and Daniel Smiarowski, Massachusetts district director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stopped at Sunbrite Farm and Eden Pond Farm in Bernardston, as well as Outlook Farm and Market in Westhampton, as part of an annual farm tour in the First Congressional District.

The farms were chosen for the tour because of existing relationships with the USDA.

“(Farmers) tend to be land-rich, but when they’re not getting the right price for their milk or they’re not getting the right price for their product, it becomes hard to have succeeding generations take over the property,” Neal said. “The complexity of it goes well beyond Bernardston to how prices are set, but it’s not quite supply and demand. That’s the challenge.”

“The pricing of milk is like a science,” said Dave Duprey, owner of Sunbrite, a dairy farm. “It never really makes sense to me. I just know it’s never enough.”

Duprey took over the farm from his parents in 1982. He is the third generation to run the farm, and, he thinks, probably the last. He has two daughters who live in Boston and a son who lives in Bernardston helping him with the farm, but who also has a full-time job.

“He likes the fact that he has a paycheck and a retirement plan” at his day job, Duprey said.

“When I stop doing this,” he said, “there’s not anybody who’s going to jump in and take over. What’s going to happen to this land? … It’s all going to go up to brush. Eventually it will grow back to forest. I have a problem with that. But I can’t do it forever, and I don’t really have anybody who wants to jump in and take over. It’s a frustrating situation.”

Federal policy-making, Neal said, is usually influenced by large-scale industrial farms, making it difficult to address the interests of small farms like the ones in New England.

“I have to farm differently (than industrial farms),” said Duprey. “I have to piece a whole lot of things together in order to survive.”

Cris Coffin, who owns Eden Pond Farm with her husband, Roland Kinsman, said a “substantial amount” of their decisions are based on taxes, which generally favor industrial farms. Coffin and Kinsman have been operating their chicken farm since 2014. They sell eggs and chickens for meat to local markets and restaurants.

Immigration policy also has an effect on farms, Neal said, because immigrants are a source of labor.

“It’s not unlike Cape Cod in the sense that Cape Cod needs people to come in and work the hotels and motels and restaurants,” Neal said. “Here you have high-intensity seasons. For example, it might be apple-picking. When that happens, you need labor intensity.”

Stop at Hager’s

Next on Neal’s annual farm tour was Hager’s Farm Market, where he and USDA officials had lunch and spoke with farmers Aaron and Kim (Hager) Stevens.

When asked what he’d heard from other farmers that morning, Neal said farmers are concerned about taxes and the “stepped-up basis” from the original price of property to its current value. When a farm is passed on to a younger generation, those inheriting land pay capital gains taxes on the current land value — not the price it cost their parents or grandparents.

Another issue, he said, is securing migrant farm workers during the growing season. “Our farmers said it’s always been a struggle.”

When sitting down to lunch, Aaron Stevens told Neal that the price of cows has declined. His wife, Kim, told Neal that the farm’s Pioneer Valley Popcorn, grown now in Colrain, has been doing well and is sold in several local outlets.

After leaving Hager’s market, Neal posted on social media that the Hager family had struggled with rising costs at their dairy farm before they transitioned their 700-acre dairy farm to produce, working with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.