Are Small Dairy Farms Doomed?

As organic products become big business, small farms suffer. (Photo: symbiot/Shutterstock)

I just finished reading a piece on Gourmet that made me sad. And guilty. And angry. And a little scared. After 144 years and six generations of the same family owning a dairy farm, the Borland family auctioned off everything. The family couldn’t see going into debt in their 60s and who can blame them? The Vermont family farm was the 33rd farm this year to stop operating in the small New England state.

Why so many emotions over a small farm owned by a family I’ve never met? First of all, the author, Barry Estabrook, does a good job. He attended the auction himself and brings his readers along with him in the piece. But it’s more than that. It’s the fact that I can’t go more than a day or two without reading about the problems our small dairy farmers are facing or our small organic farmers are facing. The problems are monumental. I worry that after a decade of these farmers being valued, they may all but disappear in the next decade.

But back to the specific piece about the Borland farm. What made me feel guilty? I feel like I’m not doing enough. Yes, I buy organic milk products, but I’m the “show-not-tell” type of environmental foodie. I don’t preach organics to my friends. I’ll answer questions if they ask me. If they choose to read what I write, then it’s something they want to read. I don’t spend my girls’ nights out or my time at the park with other parents screaming, “You should be buying organic milk for your children. It’s better for them. It tastes better, too. You should be packing organic yogurt in your lunch! Oh, and if you don’t start buying organic milk products then all the small organic dairy farmers will go out of business.” It’s not my style.

What made me angry? This.

Prices paid to farmers per hundredweight (about 12 gallons) have fallen from nearly $20 a year ago to less than $11 in June. Earlier this month, the federal government raised the support price by $1.25, but that is only a drop in the proverbial bucket. It costs a farmer about $18 to produce a hundredweight of milk. In Vermont, where I live, that translates to a loss of $100 per cow per month. So far this year, 33 farms have ceased operation in this one tiny state. Meanwhile, the price you and I pay for milk in the grocery store has stayed about the same. Someone is clearly pocketing the difference. Perhaps that explains why profits at Dean Foods— the nation’s largest processor and shipper of dairy products, with more than 50 regional brands — have skyrocketed. The company announced earnings of $75.3 million in the first quarter of 2009, more than twice the amount it made during the same quarter last year ($30.8 million). ( Dean countered that “current supply and demand is contributing to the low price environment.”)

It made me angry because I hadn’t even thought about the fact that if the dairy farmers are getting paid less for the milk, the consumers should be paying less for the milk, too. It made me angry because the price I’ve been paying for organic milk actually went up two months ago. It made me angry because I have a low tolerance for corporate greed, but I have absolutely no idea how to begin turning that anger into something productive.

The most that I can think of to do is to keep supporting the small dairy farmers by continuing to buy organic dairy products and to continue to bring attention to the problems to my readers. It doesn’t seem like enough, though.

I’m sure some of you have other ideas. What can we do to help the small dairy farmers?