Nothing is as nostalgic as the image of the bucolic Vermont countryside, with the freshly painted red barn in the background and the Gothic couple standing, pitchfork in hand, in front of the white clapboard home. The 1940s image could be stamped all over Vermont; the couple’s farm was one of 11,000.

It was 2011 when the number of dairy farms dropped below 1,000. Today it’s 673 and still in decline. It’s not a business attractive to the upcoming generation given the challenges of over-production, declining consumption, “milk” made from nuts, and countries, like China, who are amping up their production, particularly on the organic milk end.

There isn’t a business around that is any tougher or less inviting. For most of the last five years those still in the business have been selling their milk for far less than it costs to produce it. Even organic farmers — long protected by their higher prices — are challenged by the oversupply and the accompanying dip in prices they receive.

This is not to say there is less milk; there’s more in fact. It’s just coming from fewer farmers with larger farmers. Much larger. The oversupply of milk is such an issue that Agri-Mark, one of the largest dairy cooperatives in the northeast just announced it will begin penalizing their members $5 a hundredweight for the amount of milk produced above their individual allotments.

The co-op doesn’t have an option; it’s just barely breaking even.

Unlike other nations that heavily subsidize their dairy farmers [our neighbors to the north], we don’t, and our pricing mechanism isn’t likely to change anytime soon. So the farmers who are large enough, or have enough capital to embrace the latest technological advances, are the ones best prepared for the future. These are the farms that have their herds outfitted with their own Fitbit devices, and who have the money for automated milking systems. They’ve reduced the labor component of the operation, and increased the efficiency.

As with many industries, this “creative disruption” leaves a few standing, and most looking for other professions. It’s a vision the next generation will grow up with, and one today’s generation will only acknowledge in passing. It’s “progress” defined in the narrowest of senses, colored in hues of inevitability.

How Vermont responds to our evolving landscape is an open question. What we know is that we will never see the 11,000 small dairy farms of our grandparents. Tomorrow’s dairy farms will be large, and largely automated. They will produce as much milk as the market needs. Ben & Jerry’s will never run short.

But there will be fewer farms and fewer farmers, which means less traffic to retailers and fewer attending on Town Meeting Day, and on and on. The effect will be largely confined to our smaller towns and more rural areas, which have been experiencing hardships for decades.

There will be challenges, particularly as they relate to the land. A sizable percentage of the acreage involved is conserved, the rights to development being bought up years ago. The only permissible use is farming, which is now problematic. [We made this argument decades ago, pointing out that the one-time use of the money for the development rights was also giving away land as collateral for future borrowing needs.]

What happens to the land, which will quickly evolve into brush if not farmed? What happens to the barns and other ag-related structures?

Equally concerning is how we respond to the very real needs of those who continue to farm and in whose blood the farming gene runs deep. They are the ones who feed us now and who fed our parents, and grandparents and their families, and who have received embarrassingly little in return. We consume their products, anxious to pay less, not able to empathize with their stressful walks down the middle of their aging milk parlors.

How we respond begins by acknowledging their challenges. For some, there will be profitable ways to diversify and to find ways to survive with one foot in farming and another doing something different — getting into hemp or maple syrup being two examples. We may also need to revisit the laws governing conservation easements; land is the one thing in short supply, it needs to be used — or conserved productively. One small example being land adjacent to rail trails, etc.

However we move forward it’s essential we do so with the livelihoods of those still in the dairy farming business foremost in our minds. Their struggles are ours as well. Even in this digital age, how we respond will be the true measure of our “connectedness.”

by Emerson Lynn

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