Valley dairy farmers air innovations, challenges with state officials

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 28, 2017 by David McLellen.

Pick up a gallon of milk at a New England grocery store, and its contents are pretty much guaranteed to be locally made. Whether the label advertises a big company’s name or a family-owned farm, the dairy farmer who has provided that milk is relatively close by.

“All the milk bought in New England is less than a day away from where it comes from,” said Darryl Williams, a 12th-generation farmer, who runs Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield.

Thursday morning, dairy farmers from three Pioneer Valley farms gathered to talk about the distinctly local nature of the milk industry, as well as some of the problems farmers face.

Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley hosted the discussion, which was joined by state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation.

“Right now, dairy farmers in New England are at that sweet spot where we are producing the right amount of milk for New England,” Denise Barstow of Barstow’s Longview Farm said. “If we start losing dairy farms, though, then it won’t be that way.”

There are about 150 dairy farms in Massachusetts. Many of those in western Massachusetts, like Barstow’s Longview Farm, have business deals and close relationships with the surrounding community. The Barstow family, which has run the farm at 172 Hockanum Road since 1806, educates local college students about the dairy farming process, hosts family events and gives tours of the farm.

Similarly, Mapleline Farm in Hadley — which has been around for almost 120 years — has a deal with Big Y and also works closely with the University of Massachusetts, providing milk to UMass dining services for the school’s special events. Around 30 to 40 percent of Mapleline Farm’s business is with the university, according to Mapleline’s Jessica Dizek. However, the relationship goes beyond the exchange of money.

“We love the school’s model of educating students. They don’t just buy our milk, but they will have information the students can look at or read when they’re dining. It lets them know about us and about dairy farming,” Dizek said. “We’re fortunate this area is supportive of agriculture and we have a built-in consumer base that understands us.”

Robotic milkers

Despite the entrenchment in their local communities, the three dairy farmers say it is tough financially to dairy farm in Massachusetts. According to Mitchell, taxes, labor and property costs in Massachusetts are amongst the highest in the U.S.

To cut down on labor costs, many dairy farms are investing in robotic milkers. The machines rely on collars worn around the cows’ necks that collect a wide variety of data, including the fluctuating weight of the cows. The data can determine when and how much a cow needs to be fed and when it needs to be milked. The three farmers agreed that the collars allow them to farm more efficiently, as well as keep their cows healthy.

“It’s a much more efficient way of doing things, with each cow getting the right amount of grain, whereas before all the cows got the same grain,” Williams said.

The robotic milkers use a sweet cow feed that encourages cows to walk over to the milker, where the machine’s robotic attachments milk the cow. All of this can be done in the absence of any humans.

Because of these machines, the cows are milked more often — whenever they need it. Barstow says her family’s 270 dairy cows are milked 2.7 times a day on average, compared to twice a day when they were milked manually.

“Being seventh generation, the robots made me come back,” Barstow said. “We can even birth a cow when it needs; basically, we work less, but get more milk.”

The robotic milker and collar system do many jobs that a farmer would otherwise have to do, and having the system, while it can be an expensive investment, reduces the hours and manpower needed to dairy farm, and increases the amount of milk there is to sell.

Though this reduces labor costs, dairy farming is still an expensive business that is no longer directly subsidized by the government.

“The last farm bill got rid of direct payments, which are what people consider subsidies,” Mitchell said. “Now it’s more of an insurance system, and when the price of milk falls below a certain point, you get the insurance.

The system uses the national price of milk, Mitchell said, which is partly set by the federal government, and the insurance comes in if that price drops below the production cost, also federally determined.

Because of high production costs in Massachusetts, this system is not entirely efficient, Mitchell said.

“People don’t understand that farmers don’t have anything to say about the price of milk. There is a calculated formula that probably only two people in the entire world understand,” Mitchell said, and his colleagues agreed.

To address continued low prices paid to farmers for milk, the Farm Bureau is supporting House Bill 2616, introduced by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, which would double from $4 million to $8 million the limit on the allowable tax credit to be paid to dairy farms when milk production costs exceed what farmers are paid for milk.

“A lot of dairy farms are struggling right now,” Kulik said. “They would really like to see this increase.”

Economic development

Although agricultural property is taxed at a lower rate than other types of property in Massachusetts, Mitchell noted that farmers who own non-contiguous land may end up paying higher, residential taxes.

Another problem the farmers cited was the estate tax, or death tax. According to Mitchell, the sons and daughters of farmers who inherit farming property worth more than $1 million pay a “heavy” tax.

“Farms should be evaluated on the agricultural value, not the development value,” Mitchell said. “There are children that have to sell part of their parents’ farm to keep farming, or they can sell the whole farm and not keep farming.”

Scibak acknowledged that “the government can screw it up” when it gets involved in agriculture. However, he was upbeat about U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, serving on House Committee on Agriculture, and both Mitchell and Williams praised McGovern’s work with Massachusetts farmers.

Scibak said government should look at agriculture as an important part of economic development.

“For example, we have the Workforce Training Fund Programs that provide training. We should have the same for farmers,” Scibak said.

The Barstow’s Longview Farm event was the first of four area stops Thursday for Mitchell and Parsons, who later visited Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield, Pioneer Gardens in Deerfield and People’s Pint in Greenfield.

At Warm Colors Apiary, beekeeper Dan Conlon told the lawmakers he has seen dramatic growth in beekeeping from when he began in business about 17 years ago, from four to “hundreds” around Franklin County.

He said the Pioneer Valley has largely been spared the problems honeybee populations have experienced around the country because there isn’t the presence here of migrating pollination contractors that travel around the country and spread disease or parasites.

Still, he told the legislators — as they watched four workers in protective clothing weighing roughly 100 hives inhabited by an estimated 50 million honeybees — that he suffered a 25 percent bee loss last spring, the highest since 2001, because of a combination of bears and February’s Conway tornado.