Holding On | Dairy Farmers Cling to the Land They Love

What is the true value of a farm, or of a farmer like Melvin Churchill? Dairy farmers across New England are clinging to a way of life that is quickly disappearing.

By Ben Hewitt

Oct 15 2013


The Churchill farm, looking toward the Green Mountains–a timeless vista. But farmers know they can’t eat scenery. “Some view, huh?” Melvin Churchill comments. “Real estate people would like this field.”

Photo Credit : Miller, Peter

The annual farm-equipment auction at The Pines’ barn in Barton, Vermont, was hopping. Maybe it was the weather that had brought the crowds, for although it was only mid-April, the day was more appropriate to early June. The air pulsed with a soft breeze, warm enough that bottles of Mountain Dew outnumbered coffee cups at least two to one. In northern Vermont, the grass was already greening up nicely, and the consensus was that the cows would be turned out to pasture a week or two earlier than usual. If I had to guess, I’d say there were 250 people gathered at The Pines–mostly farmers, but also a few others drawn to the rugged utilitarian aesthetic of the machinery. I could be off by 50 or 60 in either direction, but no matter the precise number, it felt like a crowd. The auction hadn’t started, so folks mostly wandered along the rows of implements and tractors, or stood chatting in small groups.

Dairy farmers cling to the land they love
Melvin Churchill’s farm reminds me of the qualities that once defined rural American life but are now eroding. It’s an erosion, I believe, that leaves us all poorer.
Photo Credit : Miller, Peter

Pickup trucks rolled slowly down the gravel road and turned into the field to park next to other pickups. Many towed equipment trailers–a silent hope that on this day, a deal would be struck. Six elderly attendees sat in a circle around the circumference of a big tractor tire that lay on its side.

There was no dress code but the one that was unspoken and self-enforced: clean-but-frayed flannel shirts tucked into freshly washed work pants, topping steel-toed work boots. Often the toe leather was worn away, exposing a shiny bit of metal, almost jewel-like in the sun. Ball caps were all but ubiquitous, advertising tractor brands or equipment dealers or feed suppliers. The older farmers walked in the determined, shoulders-forward way of those who have spent nearly a lifetime traveling from one task to another, moving slowly but surely into the knowledge that those tasks formed a line stretching farther than the eye could see or the day could accommodate. The younger farmers moved in a way that suggested that they would someday move like the older farmers.

People greeted one another in a languorous, low-key manner that revealed few specifics but nonetheless offered a view of character and the enduring qualities upon which character is built: humor, persistence, self-effacement.

“Hi Tommy. How ya’ doin’?”
“Not bad.”
“Hanging in there, eh?”
“Yuh. Ain’t movin’ very fast.”
“How you doin’?”
“Not too bad.”
“They let you out, eh?”
“Nice day, ain’t it?”
“Not bad. I seen worse.”
“Better’n last week, anyhow.”
“Suppose so.

I walked slowly through the crowd, eavesdropping a bit, but mostly just absorbing what came my way. The auctioneer, Reginald “Reg” Lussier, began his patter, and for a time I simply stood, all but hypnotized by the rapid-fire rhythm of his craft and the swirl of bodies around me as folks pressed in to get a view of the action. I smelled cigarette smoke, French fries, grass, and the sharp, vinegary scent of sun-hot metal, and I felt as though I were in the midst of something ritualistic, almost ceremonial, in nature.

Some of this, I knew, was because I’d learned just days before that the number of working dairy farms in Vermont had recently dropped to 1,017. This means that since recordkeeping began in 1947, the state has lost 10,189 farms. In other words, in a little more than half a century, we’ve shed 90 percent of our dairy farms.

So I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was witnessing the coming together of a dying breed, one of the last gasps of a way of life that once defined the surrounding landscape. What will the Pines auction look like in 10 years? I wondered. And then: Will there even be a Pines auction in 10 years?

And yet, to be honest, there was little in my immediate view to suggest that the auction wouldn’t endure. The turnout seemed strong; spirits seemed high. Large pieces of equipment were selling for many thousands of dollars and, it appeared to my admittedly novice eye, selling quickly. I heard laughter; I saw smiling faces. Everyone seemed relaxed, and it occurred to me that maybe I was simply at a farm-equipment auction on a nice day in April, watching as flannel-clad men quietly assigned an upper boundary to the price they’d pay, and then did what they could to pay less.

On the morning of the Pines auction, I’d kissed my wife and two young boys goodbye and walked over the hill from our own small farmstead (seven cows, a dozen sheep, four pigs, and enough chickens that fresh eggs can sometimes feel like a burden), across a ridgetop hayfield still redolent of the spring’s manure spreading, and down a short, steep, grassy pitch to Melvin Churchill’s dairy farm. At the top of the hill, I paused for a moment to survey the scene below me.

From my vantage point, I could see the back of the old farmhouse where Melvin lives with his partner, Janet Whitlock. It’s large and rambling, constructed many decades before terms like “energy efficiency” and “green building” had entered our lexicon. Every year Melvin buys a dozen cords of hardwood logs to feed the basement furnace. The house is white clapboard, with a large wraparound porch. The paint is flaking, and in some places the lines don’t meet as precisely as they once did, but it’s still solid.

The barn is about 50 feet from the house, slightly downhill, across a packed-dirt barnyard. Naturally, it’s red. Equipment is scattered about the property: three tractors and a bulldozer; the implements of haying–mower, tedder, rake, baler; a round bale wrapper, for sealing the big marshmallow-like cylinders of hay that have all but replaced traditional square bales on the modern dairy farm; a pair of hay wagons; and a handful of cars and pickup trucks in varying stages of disrepair. There’s a small pond, and along its southern shore, a tall diving platform that Melvin’s sons (Martin, Matthew, Morgan, and Jeremy) constructed one summer from cedar poles. Now it leans precariously, as if preparing to take a dive itself.

Melvin’s property isn’t an unnaturally spotless postcard farm. The old implements, the broken cars, the loose shingles on the barn roof … I suppose that someone from a place where the workday didn’t begin at 5:00 a.m. and end 14 hours later, and the workweek didn’t extend into those days beginning with the letter S, might view these things as eyesores.

But perhaps because I was raised in rural Vermont, where these sights are commonplace, or perhaps because I know Melvin Churchill and at least something of what it takes to make a living milking 42 cows in Vermont in 2010, that’s not my view. Rather, I’ve come to appreciate these sights as a tangible lesson in thrift and the enduring willingness to carry on in the face of the knowledge that things aren’t likely to get any easier anytime soon. In that way, they remind me of the qualities that once defined rural American life but are now eroding. It’s an erosion, I believe, that leaves us all poorer.

I walked down the hill and across the barnyard.

I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I’ve grown up around them; for a time, when I was a boy, my mother milked cows at a small dairy a mile or two up the gravel road from our home outside Enosburg, Vermont. Enosburg is a small town in the state’s northwestern corner, where the land flattens along its sweep toward Lake Champlain. I was born in 1971, when Vermont was home to 4,083 dairy farms, and many of them were situated along the state’s western corridor, where the agreeable topography and fertile soil provided an ideal canvas for family-size dairy farming.

Dairy farmers cling to the land they love
The Churchill farm, looking toward the Green Mountains—a timeless vista. But farmers know they can’t eat scenery. “Some view, huh?” Melvin Churchill comments. “Real estate people would like this field.”
Photo Credit : Miller, Peter

At the time, 4,083 dairy farms must have felt like a terribly diminished number, nearly two-thirds fewer than had existed only a generation prior. But of course the slide has continued, and it’s hard to ignore the obvious, which is that Vermont is likely to soon have fewer than 1,000 dairy farms. To understand why the downward trajectory of Vermont’s dairy farming community looks as steep and intractable as the state’s vaunted ski slopes, it’s critical to understand a bit about how dairy farming works–or, more precisely, how the milk market works.

Milk is sold as a bulk commodity; once it leaves any particular farm, it’s trucked to a central processing and distribution plant, where it’s mingled with the milk of hundreds of other farms. Farmers are paid by the hundredweight, which, as you may have guessed, is 100 pounds. (Since you probably don’t buy milk by the pound, it might be helpful to know that there are about 11.6 gallons in a hundredweight.) Like most bulk commodities, the farmer doesn’t set the price for his or her milk; instead, market forces such as supply, demand, and the costs of the various inputs necessary to produce milk set the price. The costs of these inputs are themselves volatile; for instance, over the past two years, the price of diesel fuel has ranged broadly, from about $2.50 per gallon to nearly $5 per gallon.

In Vermont, it’s widely accepted that it costs about $17 to produce a hundredweight of conventional fluid milk. Of course, that figure varies, depending on current input prices and a farm’s particular circumstances, but it’s close enough to help us understand why nearly nine in ten Vermont dairy farms have gone under in the past six decades. And it’s definitely close enough to understand why the region’s dairy farmers are facing a crisis of historic proportions, driven by a recent collapse in milk prices–along with the continuing pressures exerted by development, property taxes, and the shifting landscape of how our nation produces its food. It’s a crisis that came to a head in July 2009, when the wholesale price of milk dropped to $10.04 per hundredweight. It was the lowest price in more than three decades, and the fallout was immediate: By the end of the year, Vermont would lose 52 more dairy farms, nearly 5 percent of its remaining total.

In 1997, my wife (then girlfriend) Penny and I bought 40 acres in Cabot, Vermont, a small town about 23 miles northeast of Montpelier, the state capital. You’ve probably heard of Cabot–it’s home to the eponymous creamery, maker of the “World’s Best Cheddar” and numerous other dairy products.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the creamery, you likely wouldn’t know the name Cabot, for the town is in most other ways similar to hundreds of other rural New England communities. The village proper is home to about 250 people; the surrounding hills and valleys that fall within the town’s purview bring the official population to 1,300. It’s a solid, working-class community of solid, working-class people: farmers and carpenters, plus the occasional artist or lawyer.

The cooperative that forms Cabot Creamery was founded in 1919, during a period of dairy-industry malaise that would look alarmingly familiar to a Cabot farmer from 2010: lots of milk sloshing around a depressed market. Things were bad enough to compel nearly 100 of the town’s farmers (yes, there were once this many dairy farmers in Cabot alone) to band together to purchase the village creamery, with the intention of turning milk into butter–and butter, which is easier to ship to distant markets and carries a production premium, into money. Each farmer kicked in $5 per cow and a cord of firewood to fuel the boiler, and a business was born. In the early 1930s, the company added cheese to its offerings, and by 1960, more than 600 farms across New England had joined the cooperative.

It’s hard not to imagine that this was a simpler, healthier era of dairy farming. Many farmers still milked by hand and kept herds of only 15 or 20 cows. “You could make a decent living on that–you didn’t have to keep thinking about getting bigger and bigger,” Melvin Churchill says. Farmers milked into buckets, which they emptied into 10-gallon cans, where the milk cooled in a bath of icy water. When winter roads became impassable, they’d hitch up a horse and sleigh for the trip to the creamery. All of this sounds impossibly quaint and deeply historic, but it wasn’t all that long ago: Melvin is 62, and he remembers it clearly.

Today, there are nine working dairy farms in Cabot; only two produce milk for the creamery cooperative, which has now grown to include 1,200 farms through New England and upstate New York. The remainder of Cabot’s dairy farmers, including Melvin and son Matt Churchill, who farm together, sell into the organic milk market, and it’s not hard to understand why. The premium for organic fluid milk is substantial, with farmers currently receiving about $30 per hundredweight.

Perhaps more important, the purchasing arrangements common in the organic market guarantee farmers a fixed price for the length of their contracts (typically a year), creating a buffer against the frequent gyrations in the price of conventional fluid milk. (Cabot Creamery mitigates this effect somewhat through profit sharing, which has helped its members weather the collapse in milk prices.) The simple fact that the majority of Cabot’s dairy farms can’t afford to sell milk into the conventional market that supplies the creamery bearing the town’s name is indicative of the deep divide between what it takes to maintain a viable family-size dairy farm and what the market will bear. With the price of conventional milk prone to whipsawing above and, most recently, far below the cost of production, there’s little question that organic dairy farming offers at least a degree of stability and viability.

Dairy farmers cling to the land they love
Melvin Churchill keeps a herd of 75 cows, mostly Holsteins; 42 of them currently provide milk for the organic market, a more stable hedge against frequent fluctuations in conventional milk prices.
Photo Credit : Miller, Peter

But $30 organic milk isn’t exactly a path to riches. To produce organic milk, a farmer must purchase organic grain, which costs nearly twice as much as conventional. If they need to buy hay, they’ll pay 30 to 50 percent more than they would for conventional. Certified organic livestock fetch a similar premium. And right now, with the organic-milk market suffering from the decline in the broader economy, production quotas have been imposed on many farmers, meaning they often can’t sell as much milk as they can make.

“People think organic is a silver bullet,” Melvin notes. “But it’s not. You’ve still got to be a good manager. You’ve still got to get up in the dark and go to work every day.” I mentioned that it sure seemed to me that getting up in the dark and going to work every day was exactly what he wanted to do. “Well, that’s true,” he replied. He chuckled a bit: “I guess that’s true.”

Geographically speaking, Melvin isn’t our most immediate neighbor, but he’s the one we see most often, and that makes it feel as though he’s our closest neighbor. There are numerous reasons for that: We keep a freezer in his basement (our home’s solar power isn’t robust enough to support it); we keep our own small herd of cows, and Melvin is our primary source of expertise in all matters bovine; and we see him frequently in the hayfield abutting the border between his land and ours. Usually he’s haying, or spreading manure, or running fence. A couple of times, I’ve heard him singing over the noise of his tractor, usually something choral.

Occasionally he’ll stop and we’ll chat for a minute, but mostly we just throw each other a wave and go about tending to our respective tasks. There’s something comforting in that: Here I am, turning a manure pile or clipping pasture, and there’s Melvin, just over the hill, working his own holding. It isn’t exactly company; it’s quieter than that, a sliver of awareness that I’m not the only one afflicted by the lure of working the land, which in 2010 can feel like an illogical and lonely pursuit.

Dairy farmers cling to the land they love
Melvin Churchill and his partner, Janet Whitlock, look out on a Vermont landscape that once was as common as sky and shifting weather, yet today is increasingly under siege. For many farmers facing economic uncertainty, the pressure to sell becomes insurmountable.
Photo Credit : Miller, Peter

It’s a pursuit that has defined Melvin’s life; he’s never had a career that didn’t involve milking cows. For a year and a half, back in the early 2000s, he assembled train cars for Bombardier Inc., but that represents the only significant period of his adult life that didn’t involve farming. It’s also the only portion of his adult life that was backstopped by health insurance. “I don’t get sick much, and I try not to hurt myself,” he told me, as we drove north on Route 16 toward the auction. Except for the time a tree fell on him as he was cutting firewood, this strategy has worked out pretty well.

Melvin was born in 1948; his parents were living on the 185-acre farm that his grandfather Fred Churchill had bought in 1938. It’s the same farm that’s currently owned by Melvin’s brother Rusty and worked by his son Morgan; at some point, the narrow gravel lane that splits the farm was named Churchill Road. It connects to Bothfeld Hill Road, named for another longstanding Cabot farm family.

At the time, Melvin’s parents, Percy and Pauline, were running the place, milking about 50 cows. It was the beginning of the era of mechanization on small farms, although when Melvin was born, his father was still haying with horses. “All the local farmers would get together and move from farm to farm, getting the hay in,” he explains. They’d mow and rake the hay with horse-drawn equipment, before forking it into a wagon and then into the barn. These days, most farmers make the same big round bales that Melvin and Matt do, and it’s entirely possible to put up a year’s worth of feed without actually touching a single blade of grass or dried strand of hay.

When he was 25, having worked his parents’ farm, followed by a stint at a 600-head dairy in Tampa, Florida (brief, having followed the first of his three wives there), and then as a hired hand at the Bothfelds’, Melvin purchased 23 cows and four bred heifers and began farming for himself, first on leased property, then on his parents’ land. In 1978, he purchased the 113-acre farm where he raised his boys and where he still lives and works on 110 of those acres. He’s never really considered living anywhere but in Cabot, although a dozen years ago he left the farm in the care of his oldest son, Martin, and embarked on a cross-country drive.

The trip made an impression on him, in no small part because he met a cattle rancher in southern Utah and spent a day helping him brand the young stock. The rancher took a liking to Melvin. “I’m going to show you something not many people have seen,” he told him. He took Melvin deep into the desert on horseback, where they clambered up a rock face to a natural stone shelf. Figures and symbols were carved into the wall of a little triangular cavern behind it: petroglyphs. The carvings were arranged in two rows, one over the other, and the rancher explained that the rows were situated so that at noon on the spring equinox, the sunlight would fall precisely on the bottom one; on the fall equinox, it would fall upon the top row.

It just so happened that the next day was the spring equinox. Melvin wasn’t one to pass up such an opportunity, so in the morning he returned to the cavern. The rancher had been right. Melvin sat for a while, transfixed by the art of a culture whose time had long ago passed.

On the morning of the auction, I found Melvin in the house, drinking coffee. He’s short and built in the quietly powerful way of men who have chosen physically arduous careers. He has a full beard, and has since I met him when we moved onto our land in 1997. There’s almost always a baseball cap perched on his head; it was years before I realized that he’s mostly bald. From a distance–and perhaps to a stranger, even up close–he can appear intimidating. That’s due, I think, to the beard, which makes it difficult to gauge his expression, and a full quotient of Yankee reticence. He doesn’t feel compelled to fill conversational silences, a quality I used to find uncomfortable but have since come to appreciate.

Janet offered me coffee, and I sat at the counter drinking it and looking over an ad for a wheeled scoot she was considering, in hopes that it would ease her gardening efforts, which are affected by physical ailments. We all agreed it seemed well constructed and, at $89.95, a worthwhile investment. Melvin pointed out an upside-down tomato planter ($19.95), and we all had a good chuckle.

Matt strode into the house. He’s 33, and the third of Melvin’s sons to try his hand on the farm (Jeremy’s the holdout; he’s a carpenter.) Martin lasted about a year and a half before taking a job at Vermont’s Agency of Transportation and moving to Montpelier. Morgan stayed for a few years, then moved across the valley with his wife to work the farm where Melvin was raised, the one that now belongs to his brother Rusty. Matt’s in his third year on the farm, and from what I can tell, seems inclined to stick around. He lives about five miles away with his wife and daughter and between milkings works as an electrician. He’s also a skilled outdoorsman. He loaded a plate with nine pancakes, ate quickly and quietly, and left to spread manure. Melvin and I climbed into Matt’s truck and headed north, toward Barton.

At the auction, I bought lunch for the two of us: cheeseburgers, fries, Pepsis. I carried our food over to the spot where Melvin had parked himself, next to a rust-speckled disc harrow he hoped to leave with. He needed the harrow to tend to a rough hayfield that he and Matt had recently taken over.

The bidding began, and Melvin balanced his lunch atop the harrow’s frame. I’d already learned that auction ethos demands the most extreme subtlety on the bidders’ part, like counterpoint to the frenetic banter of the auctioneer. Huge (and often hugely expensive) pieces of equipment trade hands on twitchy nods that could just as well be the response to a blackfly as an actual bid. During the auction, I studiously kept my head still, lest I end up accidentally buying an early-1900s-era potato digger, say, or a snowmobile that supposedly ran just fine.

Indeed, despite knowing Melvin’s interest, it took me a moment to realize that he was even bidding, and another moment to realize that he’d placed the winning bid and now owned the harrow. He’d gotten it for $850 and looked pleased with himself; another, smaller harrow had sold for nearly twice that. We sat on his purchase and ate our lunch, discussing the equipment’s merits and possibilities with Morgan, who’d come to the auction mostly as a spectator. True, Morgan needed a new baler, but he needed the cash more. “This isn’t the best time to be spending money,” he noted ruefully, but even as he said it, he was gazing wistfully at a New Holland piece, its paint still shiny from lack of use.

I wonder what we really lose when we lose our farms, and what we’ve lost already. The talk seems to be of money, of how these farms are worth more than the value of their products for the sheer economic activity they generate. Tourists, milk-truck drivers, tractor salesmen, auctioneers–all are tangential benefactors of the agricultural landscape. Vermont has even determined how much all these parts are worth: $14,000 per cow.

Dairy farmers cling to the land they love
With a lifetime of dairy farming at his back, Melvin Churchill (here haying a section of his 110 acres in Cabot, Vermont) is bucking the trend of leaving the land.
Photo Credit : Miller, Peter

I don’t dispute those numbers. But to me, they ignore a deeper, intrinsic value that can’t be measured in dollars alone–or even at all. It’s the value of my young boys’ gathering around Melvin and Matt’s bale wrapper on a cloudless June afternoon to watch them put up the winter’s hay. It’s Matt pausing to explain how the wrapper works. It’s passing any one of the many farms in Cabot–the Ackermans’, the Steckers’, the Bothfelds’, the Paquins’–and seeing the cows, some bent to the grass, some loafing in the shade of a fenceline maple. It’s a reminder of the inescapable connection between our land and our food, between us and what sustains us.

There’s a feeling of inevitability surrounding the future of Vermont’s dairy industry. Many of the loans that carried any number of farmers through the past two seasons have gone unpaid, and additional credit will be hard to come by. The state’s Agency of Agriculture has predicted that as many as 200 more farms could go under by the end of this year. Even if it’s half that number, 2010 will have turned out to be one tough year.

Melvin Churchill, buffered from the worst of the downturn by his organic status and the fact that his farm is paid off, acknowledges this truth. “Realistically, it won’t be a farm forever,” he said, when I asked him about the future of his place. At some point, he and Matt might move onto a bigger farm, or they might move on from farming altogether. At some point, my boys probably won’t watch them hay anymore, either because my boys no longer care or because Melvin and Matt are no longer haying.

There are times when I consider the implications of that and wonder whether sometime soon the barns and pastures of my hometown will be not unlike the petroglyphs that Churchill saw in Utah: artifacts … history … the remains of a particular way of life and the people who lived it.

Maybe so; probably so. But for now, I take some comfort in the fact that I can walk over the hill, across the Churchills’ pasture, among their big, gentle cows. For another summer, at least, my boys will spend hours at the edge of the hayfield above our house, watching Melvin and Matt mow and rake and bale. This year, and likely for a few more, I’ll drive the back roads of Cabot, past the town’s remaining farms. I’ll see people I know doing work they love for wages they can barely afford, and I’ll be reminded that the value of a particular task should not always be best measured by the money it will bring. When I get home, I’ll try to explain that to my boys. And I’ll hope, more than anything, that they’ll understand.

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