Editorial: A stark visual to dairy’s reality

The decline in the number of dairy farms in Vermont has been steady for the past 70 years, even as milk output increases and the economic contribution to the state remains significant. Perhaps because dairy remains an economic powerhouse in the farm sector, we Vermonters aren’t as concerned as we might be to the problems dairy farmers are facing today.
Those troubles hit close to home this week with the auction of Clark Hinsdale III’s 250-cow dairy herd at one of Vermont’s most iconic dairy farms. Hinsdale’s 600-acre Nordic Farms sits prominently off Route 7 atop a knoll overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west and Mount Mansfield, Camel’s Hump and the Green Mountains to the east. It’s a spectacular setting and the bright red roof of the large, state-of-the-art white milking barn created a scene of seeming prosperity and vitality.
And it was prosperous back in 2014, when milk prices were at $24 per hundredweight. But three years of declining prices sent the farm, which had been sold to Hinsdale’s former farm manager who had three sons also interested in farming, into bankruptcy in 2017. After a year of trying to find a suitable buyer, Hinsdale called it quits and this Wednesday morning auctioned off all the farm equipment, the robotic milking system and other dairy related stuff that might have had value to area farmers.
What’s significant about this sale, and about this three-year price spiral, is that it seems different.
Nordic Farms had been well financed. Hinsdale is a seventh-generation Vermonter (all four of his grandparents — maternal and paternal — are seventh generation) and money from the California Gold Rush days reportedly helped finance the purchase of some of the land in Addison and Chittenden counties the family still owns. Nordic Farms was innovative and forward-thinking, installing the first robotic milking systems in the state, and inviting thousands of farmers throughout Vermont and upstate New York to visit the farm for demonstrations. Hinsdale also diversified into sugaring, organic vegetables, hay, hops, beef, grapes and the Charlotte Berry Farm, which he sold a few years prior.
And he knew dairy policy inside-out through his almost 40 years of advocacy on behalf of dairy farmers, primarily as the long-time president of the Vermont Farm Bureau from 1986 to 2006. He traveled extensively, visited lots of farms in various states and countries, and learned what he could.
What he says today is that the typical three-year dairy cycle of boom-to-bust pricing (which should have ended by now but sees no sign of doing so) has changed, and that the industry is eyeing uncharted territory.
Numbers tell part of that changing story:
• A hundred years ago, Vermont had more cows that people. No longer. The state’s population is about 625,000 people, and Vermont’s dairy cows have declined to about 100,000 (down from about 134,000 cows in 2012.)
• Of those 100,000 dairy cows, about a third (29,000), are found on farms with herds of 1,000 or more.
• Today there are about 25 to 30 farms of 1,000 or more cows, or just under 3 percent; about 80 percent of the other roughly 750 dairy farms are under 200 cows, while mid-size farms make up the difference.
• About 67 percent of Vermont’s dairy farms are located in three counties: Addison, Franklin and Orleans.
• While Vermont represents only about 2 percent of the nation’s milk production, and ranks 16th overall, it produces over 60 percent of all milk produced in New England, and dairy represents 70 percent of all agricultural sales in the state.
• And according to the 2012 report, Milk Matters, about 6,000 to 7,000 jobs in the state are tied to the dairy industry, which contributed $2.2 billion to the state’s economy in that year.
Significantly, it’s having one-third of the cows owned by less than 3 percent of the large farms that could be changing the dynamics of the boom-bust cycle — and that’s a trend that is only likely to accelerate in the coming years, and with the majority of those 750 dairy farms being under 200 cows that portends a lot of upcoming change.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is championing a forthcoming $1.1 billion aid package to the dairy industry, a Margin Protection Program is soon to be rolled out, and there’s congressional babble of setting a base price for milk at $23.34 per hundredweight (see story Page 1A), but federal assistance in the past, while well-intended, hasn’t been sufficient to stem the tide that has seen smaller dairies fold as the number of larger dairies grow.
That Charlotte’s Nordic Farms, once a Dairy Farm of Distinction, is no longer a dairy brings a starker visual image to that reality.
Angelo Lynn

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