Before reading any further, check out Farmers: Fight or Flight. I talked about my family’s dairy farm in Minnesota as well as the struggles we faced before selling out of the dairy business. Good. Now let’s start scratching away at Massachusetts dairy farming. . .
In 1980, Massachusetts had 829 licensed dairy farms. Today, there are about 147. As Massachusetts dairy farms continue to decrease, a group of farmers have dug in their heels and refused to give up their way of life.
The Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers is a nonprofit organization whose objective is to 1) advance the dairy industry and 2) create sustenance for dairy farmers. The organization started in the 1980s when a group of farmers decided they wanted to make dairy farming in Massachusetts more profitable.
One of the first movements of MADF was to try to instate a vendor’s fee, which would charge vendors a sales tax per gallon of milk that would go directly to the farmer. When this failed, MADF pushed for another type of legislation, known as the dairy compact. The dairy compact made an effort to regulate what dairy farmers were paid for their milk, regardless of the fluctuating milk prices. After multiple evolutions, the dairy compact became an ineffective method for aiding northeast dairy farmers. MADF then reorganized its efforts and pushed for a tax credit. The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture established a Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program—which qualifies dairy farmers for tax credit every month milk prices fall below a set price—as part of the Dairy Farm Preservation Act. The farmers receive the tax credit when they file their tax returns every year.
Chip Hager, the vice president of MADF and a third-generation dairy farmer from Colrain, Mass., gave me the insider’s scoop on Massachusetts dairy farming. While we chatted on the phone, I could hear Chip’s 16-month-old granddaughter “reading” a Miss Spider book loud and clear. Her animated reading demanded an audience, so it was quite gracious of her to share her grandpa with me for a few minutes.
After telling Chip I was a farm girl myself, he seemed eager to talk farms.
“Farms are still decreasing, but not as much as they would have without the tax credit. If you take the decline in dairy farmers in the whole country compared to the amount in Massachusetts, we have not declined nearly as much as the rest of the country,” Chip said.
I discussed with Chip the “local food” craze I encountered when moving to Massachusetts, and he agreed that, in this way, New England differs from other regions. He said it’s fortunate that Massachusetts has a lot more consumers than production. This is one of the factors that make it easier for direct sales.
However, Chip did say that it is difficult for dairy farmers to sell directly to consumers. Of the 147 licensed dairy farms, only four or five of them are licensed to sell directly to consumers. Chip said there are also a small amount of farmers—with four- to five-cow herds—that sell raw milk. (In case you’re curious, when I Googled “raw milk,” I came across numerous articles claiming raw milk is bad for consumption. I’m not sure what that’s about, since I grew up on raw milk, but that’s another topic for another time. Anywho, back to dairy. . .)
Chip pointed out that even though certain dairy companies are national, a lot of the milk is still bought from small farms. For example, Chip’s family farm is part of Agri-Mark Cooperative, which owns Cabot Creamery. Therefore, when consumers purchase Cabot products, they are supporting New England farmers that sell their milk to Agri-Mark, such as the Hagers.
Whenever consumers bought Land O’Lakes products, they were inadvertently supporting my family. The problem is that the fluctuating milk prices prevented my family, and many other Minnesota farmers, from making a sustainable livelihood in the dairy business. It’s not the company’s fault, it’s the milk prices that are regulated by the U.S. government. Massachusetts’s development of the Dairy Farmer Tax Credit Program succeeded in aiding farmers during the tough months—and years—of low milk prices. But even with the aid, Chip said that dairy farmers still struggle.
“We have 130 [cows] right now. 2009 was a terrible year [for milk prices], and 2010 was a bail out year from trying to pay off ’09. Even with the tax credit there was a tremendous backlog. In ’11 there were good milk prices, but tremendous input costs in gas and feed,” Chip said. Chip’s family owns Hager’s Farm Market, which gives the family an opportunity to have income in other areas besides dairy. They harvest maple syrup, vegetables, apples and peaches. They also sell beef and pork products. The combination of all of these products enables Chip and his family to live the farmer’s life without solely depending on volatile milk prices. Consumers want milk, but past years have not been friendly to those who produce it.
Hopefully 2012 will be the year of the dairy farmer.