ADDISON — At the entrance to the DeVries family’s Dairydale Farm in Addison, there’s a sign up announcing to passersby that this tidy spread is a Vermont “Dairy of Distinction.”
The sign may still be there, but the farm’s 150 cows are gone.
Sam and Dave DeVries, brothers and partners in the Dairydale operation, milked their herd one last time on an afternoon in mid-June, and then ambled outside among the large crowd to watch their livelihood go up for auction.
Granted, by the end, it wasn’t much of a livelihood: the two dairy farmers, who bought their herd from their parents in 1995, were running behind anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 a month this spring.
With milk prices running several dollars below what it cost the farmers to produce their milk, and with their equity running out, the two decided to call it quits.
“We’d been discussing it all spring,” Sam said. “(But in the end) it happened really so fast. We signed the papers, and it was done. We were going behind every month. We really had no choice. ”
There were a lot of family meetings leading up to that decision, as Alisa, Sam’s wife, recalls it, replete with tears and spreadsheets upon spreadsheets. The brothers’ families crunched the numbers, again and again: Would they get by if they downsized? If they milked more cows?
“Nothing worked,” Alisa said. “We were just getting further and further behind.”
The DeVries family isn’t alone.
Thirty-two Vermont dairy farms went out of business in the first seven months of the year, according to Byron Moyers, the chief of the dairy section at the state Agency of Agriculture. In Addison County, eight dairies — seven that were milking cows, and one goat farm — have closed up shop in 2009.
That left 1,046 dairy farms in Vermont as of the beginning of August.
“Last year we lost of total of eight dairy farms statewide,” said Moyers, though he did point out that fewer farmers than usual got out of the business in 2008 because of high milk prices. Even so, this has been a brutal year for dairy farmers, Moyers said. “We’re already at four times that number this year.”
THE AUCTION BLOCK
Ron Wright, the Newport, Vt., auctioneer who ran the DeVries auction, has been organizing farm sales since 1982. For the bigger auctions, like the DeVries’, Wright will spend as much as two or three weeks on a farm, helping farmers get their equipment and cows ready for the sale.
For his services, Wright takes a cut of the auction’s proceeds, typically around 10 percent. But Wright’s work isn’t solely a business transaction. When it comes time to sell the cows and equipment, he tells his customers, “We’re all family,” and sometimes, he said, it feels like his own property he’s putting up for sale.
It’s actually been a slower year for the auctioneer than some might think. Some farmers are scared to sell, he said, because they’re worried there won’t be anyone to buy their herds or equipment.
Other farmers are choosing to go with herd buyouts through the Cooperatives Working Together program, because it’s a “sure thing.” Farmers contribute to the CWT program, sending money from their milk checks to the program. It’s designed to kick into gear in tough times as a way to lower milk production, bolstering the milk price by cutting back supply.
When a farmer decides to sell his herd to the CWT, his cows are slaughtered to keep them out of the national milking supply.
For the DeVries family, the herd buyout wasn’t the right choice. They would have had to fill out an application to sell the herd by a certain date, and at that point the two farmers still weren’t sure whether or not they’d keep milking or get out of the business.
Plus, they’d talked about the herd buyout in the past, and never came to an agreement on whether or not the CWT program would have been right for their farm.
“At least now, they know where several (of the cows) are. They’re at area farms,” Alisa said.
Every farmer handles the actual auction itself differently, Wright said.
“We try to make it as easy as we can,” he said. “They get nervous. I can’t blame them. That’s their whole lifestyle. They’re putting their lifestyle in my hands.”
At the DeVries’ June auction, Sam acknowledged that it wasn’t easy, watching the cows he’s tended for nearly 15 years go one by one.
And the day was exhausting. The family was up bright and early, putting the finishing touches on the equipment. Sam’s oldest son, Cody, set up a lemonade stand. But the last cows weren’t loaded onto their trailers until after 10 p.m., and it was well after dark by the time all was said and done.
“You don’t realize beforehand how much goes into it,” Alisa said.
LIFE AFTER THE COWS
Even after auctioning off their old and young livestock, and selling their farm equipment, the DeVries are still in debt. They spent part of this summer haying their family’s 600-acre farm as a way to chip away at that debt, but the weather didn’t cooperate when it came to cutting hay.
The farmland is still owned by Sam and Dave’s parents, Peter and Linda DeVries, who started farming there in 1969. For now, Sam and his family plan to stay in their farmhouse. They may board dry cows in the winter in their now-dormant barn as a way to bring in a bit of income.
“Looking back on it now, I’m glad we went out when we did,” Sam said. The price of cows has dropped, and milk prices haven’t rebounded enough for the family to keep afloat.
But it isn’t without some regret that he talks about the dairy industry. He worked 12- to 16-hour days on his farm, and he loved the work.
“I liked dealing with the cows. I liked the field work,” he said. The long hours and low pay were worth it, when he was doing a job he loved.
Now, Sam and his brother, Dave, are both working for other dairies. Sam wasn’t sure at first that he’d want to stick with dairying, though he said it’s “all (he’s) ever known.”
“When I first got out, I said, ‘I don’t know if I want anything to do with it,’” Sam said. “I knew I could do the work, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do on another farmer’s farm.”
But a job opened up at Philip Livingston’s New Haven dairy, so now Sam makes the trip up Route 17 six days a week to the farm. He’s been working for Livingston for just more than a month now, tending his calves and helping out on the farm.
It’s meant some changes for the family.
“Peter is three, and Peter would just keep asking, ‘Why does the chopper have to go away? Why does the equipment have to leave?’ That was his thing,” Alisa said. “And we would just tell him, ‘It needs to go to another farmer. They need it more than we do. (The kids) really just kind of rolled with the punches.”
Now that Sam is away for most of the day at another farm, Alisa has also had to make some changes around the house. She used to be able to call over to her husband that “Pete’s coming over!” and send the littlest one out to keep his father company on the mower or in the milking parlor.
That’s not an option anymore. And Alisa, who is due to give birth to their fourth child this month, said she’s sad to know that their new baby won’t know what it is to grow up on a dairy farm.
Ask Wright, and he’ll say that if things don’t turn around for dairy farmers soon, more families will be facing the hard decisions the DeVries made earlier this summer.
“I think you’re going to see more auctions than you can dream,” he said.