BAKERSFIELD — Claire Stanley, of Bakersfield, won’t be following her parents, Paul and Linda Stanley into dairy farming.
She’s not alone.
According to a study of U.S. Census of Agriculture data by the American Farmland Trust, one in three northeastern farmers planning to exit the business within the next 10 years, 90 percent without a young farmer working beside them, and therefore no potential successor. But the study might not be so representative of Franklin County, where recent interviews suggest most local farmers do have a successor in line.
When asked if farming is her future, Stanley laughed. “That’s a question I ask myself all the time,” she said. “My future will always have something to do with agriculture, and animals and this industry. It might not be directly farming, but it will be agriculture in some way. That’s instilled in me at this point in life.”
Stanley said she doesn’t want to lock herself into farming at this point because of the “basic reasons” everyone else gives — namely, the volatility of the U.S. dairy economy. “It’s the market,” she said. “Not knowing what your paycheck’s going to be… the volatility is reason number one for sure, not knowing the future.”
Stanley is 27, a graduate of the FARMS 2 + 2 program, a state-funded, full-tuition scholarship, in which students from family-owned Vermont farms or agricultural enterprises spend two years at Vermont Technical College (VTC) in Randolph, followed by two years at the University of Vermont (UVM). Stanley has an Associate’s Degree in Dairy Management from VTC, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science from UVM.
She said her life has always migrated towards agriculture. “When I was quite small, I went to my mother and said, ‘Ellen and I have been talking’ — Ellen is my sister — ‘Ellen and I have been talking, and when you die, she’s going to get the dolls, and I’m going to get the farm.’ It’s always been part of my life, and I was just always going to be a farmer when I grew up.”
She describes farming as “a lifestyle. It’s a way of life,” and said she’s never felt trapped by it. Stanley spent a year and a half living in downtown Columbus, Ohio, working in the headquarters of the American Jersey Cattle Association.
“I came home,” she said. “There’s a big difference. There’s something special about it.”
Stanley calls this “a very interesting time in her life.” She works part-time for St. Jacobs Animal Breeding Corp. in Enosburgh, a local business dedicated to high-quality cattle breeding. “They have been awesome in understanding that I’d like to be home at three o’clock and do chores here,” Stanley said. “The cattle aspect of agriculture and farming is something that I’ve always been interested in.”
Her parents understand her reticence to take over the farm, she said. “They’re relatively young, in good health. They still have at least ten years that they still want to farm here. We’ve always called this ‘a one-and-a-half-person farm,’ just because of our uniquely small size. At this point, they’re not ready to be done. We can’t support a third person, a me, in this situation right now. So, in ten years… who knows. For right now, I’m happy to be one of the halves.”
Farming is in “a downspin,” as Stanley put it, at the moment, with farmers receiving nearly record-low prices for their milk products. “It’s all going downhill really fast, and now the water quality stuff has hit farms. Right now seems worse than it has be. You almost wonder if something will be able to stabilize. There’s too much milk. We’re making too much milk. If we could fix that, we’d be good to go.”
How farming will continue is a “hard question,” she said, even though she acknowledges Paul-Lin Dairy Farm is better off than most. “There’s no solution. This farm, my parents paid it off, so we are very much you’re atypical farm. My parents don’t have piles of debt. It’s not like passing on a generation of debt here. If we were able to say that in the next year we were able to know how much money we’re going to make, and that it would be able to cover all of our expenses, heck yes — I would be way more comfortable saying that I’m going to be farming in ten years. But because there’s so much volatility, who the heck knows. It’s hard to guarantee anything in this industry.”
Note: This is the second story in a series profiling the children of local dairy farmers as they make decisions about their future.