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Dairy Farming in Vermont

Phil Gurley

by Garland Mason

James and Adeline Elworthy look over the cows on pasture at Liberty Dairy in Poultney (Sarah Elworthy/Photo)

James and Adeline Elworthy look over the cows on pasture at Liberty Dairy in Poultney (Sarah Elworthy/Photo)

Dairy farming is an everyday thing. Dairy farmers milk their cows two or three times each day. Even on weekends, and holidays, and even birthdays. Dairy farming is an incredibly tough career, as are many other types of farming. But in the case of dairy, there is never a break—despite family engagements, ill health or adverse weather, those cows have to be milked.

Within a week or two of moving to Rutland County I had a chance encounter with Poultney dairy farmer James Elworthy. James asked me if I knew anyone who could help him out with a quick task he couldn’t do on his own. I volunteered myself, hoping that the one-time gig would develop into something more substantial. James asked me to arrive at Liberty Farm around 4:45 in the morning to help.

I helped James test his milk that morning, my assigned task. The testing helps farmers know how much milk each cow is giving each milking, and can indicate if a cow is feeling sick.  James’s wife Sarah was expecting a baby within a few weeks and I had mentioned that I’d be available to help if needed.

Sure enough, a few weeks later I got another call from James. Adeline had arrived and could I come help? James, the ever-committed dairy farmer even helped me milk that morning after spending the night in the hospital with his wife and new daughter. To my delight, I’ve been called in every so often to take over a milking ever since Adeline came along.

Dairy farming isn’t always financially rewarding, despite the long hours worked. James is an organic farmer which means that the price he gets for his milk is locked-in, fixed in a contract and doesn’t rise and fall as it does in the commodity market. But for most farmers, the price they earn for their milk is incredibly volatile. Dictated by global market trends, the price of milk can drop to rock bottom with no warning, even as the costs of inputs are rising. The price usually comes back up, but often not fast enough. Smaller farms often operate with smaller margins than large farms and they can often find themselves at the whim of these market forces, forced to shut down after weeks or months of operating in the red while waiting for prices to come back up.

In 2011 the number of dairies in Vermont dropped to below 1,000. This is a sharp decline from the 11,000 dairies operating in Vermont in the 1940’s. Many dairy farmers are choosing to get out of the industry and for those that choose to continue on consolidating is often the best option, grabbing up land, animals and infrastructure from exiting farmers. In fact, despite the significant drop in the number of farms, Vermont is producing a similar amount of milk as in the past. Farms currently in operation are generally larger and more productive than their predecessors due to consolidation and advancing technology.

The future of dairy in Vermont is unclear. Right now, twenty percent of our dairy industry is organic. That means that twenty percent of Vermont’s dairy farms aren’t as adversely affected by shifting dairy prices and aren’t at such a great risk of going out of business. Goat and sheep dairy is also on the rise. Goat and sheep milk, as well as the milk of grass-fed cows from grazing dairies, is highly prized for its value for artisan cheesemaking. Some new farmers are also finding success in milking just a few cows to sell their milk direct to the consumer where they command a better price for their product.

Dairy farmers have always had to be adaptable and patient. Now, with more extreme weather on the rise, coupled with rapidly fluctuating markets, this inborn adaptability is constantly being tested. It’s often hard to spenda lot of time planning ahead and thinking of creative new business strategy when you’re spending twelve hours each day, seven days a week, just getting everything done, but some farmers have made it work – including James. James is one of the happiest farmers I know and there is no doubt that Liberty Farm in North Poultney will be in business for a very long time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the state of dairy in Vermont you can visit vermontdairy.com to learn about the industry. Rural Vermont, a non-profit based in Montpelier, can also help point you in the direction of a local raw milk producer.

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.