Dairy Dreaming

The landscape surrounding the Farm School in Massachusetts’ Franklin and Worcester counties is a recycled one. For the past 200 years, grazing dominated the New England landscape, particularly in the northeast Quabbin Region where rocky soil and winding hills made other kinds of farming inhospitable. Dairy was an important way to transform those grassy hillsides into income: as late as 1980, the Northeast was responsible for more than 20% of national milk production.* In 2014, though, that number had dropped below 15%. And in Franklin and Worcester counties, milk production declined by 35.4% and 34% between 2005 and 2014, respectively.* The impact of this decline is profoundly visible: fields that once grazed cows now grow vegetables or hay or housing developments; old dairy barns have become wash-pack facilities or lofted garages; used farm equipment dealers are overrun with machines from each successive dairy farm that goes out of business.

Kate Lanou knows the challenges of Massachusetts dairying firsthand. After graduating from the Farm School in 2013, Kate went to work as a dairy and livestock technician at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, MA. Appleton’s dairy milks 35 cows, and Kate was involved in “milking, feeding, grazing, bottling,” every aspect of the dairy herd’s care and production.

Kate’s first few months were spent quickly on-ramping the skills she needed to do the job. Eventually, she says, “I felt like I could run the dairy when someone was gone.” But after three years at Appleton, Kate still felt like there were gaps in her knowledge. “I didn’t know enough about cow health and trouble-shooting,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to tackle any problem that came up.”

Although she’d initially envisioned herself having her own dairy someday,  Kate found that she no longer wanted her future to be “just [me] on top of a mountain, thirty cows and a mortgage.” Her time at Appleton had revealed just how complex a task dairy farming is, both on the production side (“how much labor, how much time, how much responsibility” for animal and customer health alike), and in terms of business and marketing.

“Culturally, what does it mean to be a poor-ass dairy farmer?” Kristian Holbrook, head cheesemaker at Appleton, wonders. “It’s not everyone’s dream.” And even for those who do dream of twice-a-day milkings until the end of their days, it’s still not necessarily accessible. Holbrook’s been working in the dairy industry since the early 2000s. “I’ve just seen the industry continue to collapse down on itself,” he says, with megafarms snapping up any land that opens up and the remaining small farms battling for specialty food marketshare in big cities like New York. “Everyone I know is in the same boat,” Holbrook says. “I mean, we do it because we love it, but that doesn’t seem like a sustainable industry…”

One of the factors contributing to this “collapse” is that consumer habits regarding dairy products are changing. Per capita fluid milk consumption has been shrinking since World War II; in the last decade, that decline has picked up considerably.* Combined with a highly-volatile national pricing scheme that divorces regional costs of production from the wholesale price that farmers can get per hundred-pound of milk, fluid milk appears to no longer be suited to keeping New England dairy farms viable.

Instead of drinking milk, people are increasingly choosing to consume dairy in other ways: as yogurt, ice cream, cheese, butter—or in the form of additives that find their way into myriad other foods. The problem is, most of the remaining dairy processing facilities in New England are set up for fluid milk and can’t handle the demand for other dairy products.

In a 2013 assessment, researchers found that farmers are turning to direct marketing and on-farm processing to make it in the changing dairy landscape.** Sweet & Salty Farm, a micro-dairy with a herd of eleven milk cows in Little Compton, RI, fits this new model of New England dairy farming. None of the farm’s milk is sold as fluid milk—it’s all transformed on-site into yogurt and cheese. While Sweet & Salty yogurt can be purchased at some local grocery stores, the farm’s cheese is only available at farmers markets and the farm’s “Home Stand.”

Andrew Morley is part of the husband-and-wife team that owns and runs Sweet & Salty. On a tour he led for Maggie’s LTF Class of 2017 this past July, he explained his financial framework to student-farmers: 30% of revenue goes to his family’s income, 30-35% becomes pay for employees, and the remainder gets reinvested into the farm. By back-calculating from his desired income, Andrew can see what kind of overall revenue the farm needs to generate in order to achieve that goal. And while he’s not hitting that magic number yet, by slowly and carefully growing the business, he sees things moving in the right direction. Sweet & Salty’s on-farm creamery is central to their continued success—that, and the fact that they’re not relying on commodity milk prices.

Kate Lanou’s dairy aspirations reflect the kind of ultra-small-scale, on-farm processing model that Sweet & Salty is using. While the idea of sole responsibility for a herd of thirty milk cows still feels overwhelming, Kate’s time at Appleton did make her think that “maybe a very small dairy was within my reach… or maybe being a herd manager or barn manager.” And if Kate were running her own show, she says she’d make yogurt. “It uses all the milk. You get a pound-for-pound value-added product. You don’t have to worry about what to do with the whey, the waste.” The chemistry is accessible, and the product is “very popular.” Plus, you get to avoid the pitfalls of fluid milk: expensive bottling costs, infuriating price swings, and an increasingly disinterested consumer.

Since leaving Appleton, Kate’s been back at the Farm School, working as the Assistant Vegetable Grower for the 2017 CSA season. But even re-immersed in veggie-land, dairy isn’t far from her mind. There have been some recent inquiries on the part of the Farm School’s administration to see what it might take to bring the PVS dairy up-to-speed for commercial production. The staff is trying not to get their hopes up, but if things were to prove possible, the result could be poetic: in this landscape of disappearing dairies, at least one New England dairy barn returned to its original purpose.

*Farm Credit East Knowledge Exchange, “Challenging Times, Changing Markets: Northeast Milk Marketing in 2015,” 2015.

**American Farmland Trust and the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program at Tufts University, “The New England Milkshed Assessment,” 2013.