New England Dairy Examined in Friedman School Screening of “Forgotten Farms”

by Laura Barley

To examine the contemporary trends affecting the dairy industry, on March 27th, the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy hosted a screening of the film “Forgotten Farms”, a documentary featuring some of the longest-standing dairy farmers in New England.

Photo: Sam Whittier, Whittier Farms

Misconceptions exist to be clarified. Complexities exist to be reduced. Myths exist to be busted.

In a world that produces new food media and science every day, thousands of different opinions exist for any given food product. As far as most dairy farmers are concerned, their products are certainly not immune to the cultural and scientific dissection of what is considered “healthy”. In New England dairy farms have persisted for decades, and in some cases centuries, without gaining much cultural or ecological recognition in today’s food economy.

The film, directed by Dave Simonds and produced by Sarah Gardner, was an apt fit for the Friedman school, whose students regularly deconstruct the complexities of food systems. For many, dairy has become a symbol of the most controversial aspects of American food production – animal rights, environmental health, and adequate nutrition. These controversies haven’t left the industry unscathed, and declining demand has precipitated the departure of thousands of dairy farmers across the country. With “Forgotten Farms”, Simonds and Gardner wanted to spotlight the humanity of farmers who continue to brave the economic contraction, doing all that they can to keep the farm on the land.

A multitude of factors share responsibility for declining milk sales in the U.S, including dietary shifts towards veganism and a growing awareness of lactose-intolerance. However, there is a whole host of other factors unique to New England agriculture that makes it especially difficult to operate a dairy farm. The film’s producer, Sarah Gardner, acknowledges that “New England has really high land values, high property taxes, and high development pressures on the land. There aren’t many thriving rural economies in New England.” Consequently, the number of dairy farms in New England has dropped from roughly 40,000 in 1930 to less than 2,000 in 2012. In Massachusetts, only 117 dairy operations remain in operation today.

The film intends to shed light upon those remaining farmers – to include their voices in the broader narrative of food justice and sovereignty. Farmers like Louis Escobar, Win Chenail, Darryl Williams explain how they have endured the struggle to remain competitive in a rapidly shifting food economy. Many rely on the second jobs of spouses to supplement their incomes, and all continue to watch their milk checks shrink as they dread the day they might have to shut their doors. Unfortunately, selling the farm no longer constitutes rock bottom. NPR has recently reported on a string of dairy farmer suicides that have occurred throughout the Northeast, reflecting the demoralizing and tragic consequences of the loss of dairy livelihoods.

Samantha Whittier, a fifth-generation Massachusetts dairy farmer and co-host of Tuesday’s film screening, has worked alongside her family to weather the volatility of the dairy industry. “For my family, dairying is about constantly diversifying to ensure we are as prepared as we can be for the highs and lows of the changing markets.” As a response, Whittier Farms added a storefront retail operation to supplement their milk sales with Cabot Creamery, a cooperative that collectively supports over a thousand dairy farms across New England and upstate New York. These farmers have proven agile and resourceful in protecting their livelihoods, and are willing to adapt to keep their land in the business for as long as possible.

“What really stood out to me was the pride that dairy farmers have in their farms and their love for their jobs,” notes Friedman Ph.D student Ilana Cliffer. “The view they gave of dairy farmers in the Northeast ran contrary to what you often hear in the media about big bad industrial farms, and I think it was a very important perspective to hear.”

Gardner is quick to acknowledge the often negative perceptions of commercial dairy farming, citing this cultural wariness associated with large-scale industrial operations. “Once they scale up, they get slammed for being commercial. They’re not going to stay in business unless they scale up,” she notes. “We need to expand our definition of local agriculture to commercial agriculture.”

While the profiles of earnest dairy farmers serve as the soul of the film, Forgotten Farms also addresses important questions about what constitutes a local food system and who has a stake in deciding what that system looks like. The term ‘local’ can connote a range of ideas of a food system – food miles, quaint family farms, everything made by hand – but for most dairy farmers, this scale simply isn’t efficient to run an profitable enterprise. In recent years academic and collaborative networks have popped up across the country to examine what efficient regional food systems could look like. According to Christian Peters, a professor in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at the Friedman school, incorporating commercial agriculture makes particular sense when considering dairy as part of an efficient regional food system. “Fluid milk is a relatively regional food product already. Localizing it actually makes it less environmentally efficient.”

For their part, dairy farmers have served as economic lynchpins in New England. A typical dairy cow contributes roughly $14,000 to the economy each year, and the New England dairy industry as a whole generates over $1 billion annually. While absolute revenue is important, dairy farms also exhibit a multiplier effect, where their products generate revenue for the local community beyond their own operations. Their feed and equipment purchases, veterinarian needs, and labor demand all prop up a local economy that could easily disappear without them.

Dairy farmers manage nearly one million acres of cropland, pasture, and woodland for their operations. This accounts for roughly half of all farmland in New England. Given a report like the New England Food Vision, which sets a goal for the region to produce 50% of the food it consumes by 2050, local demand must align with foods especially suited for local production. In so many words, for regional self-reliance to strengthen, New England consumers would need to shift their diets to foods already produced here, like dairy, seafood, and certain fruits and vegetables like blueberries or cabbage. Purchasing these products becomes what it means to support a regional food system, which in essence will save as much agricultural land from development as possible.

In this context, Gardner maintains, Without dairy, we lose our food security and our farmland.”

There are some political maneuvers that could help dairy maintain its foothold in New England agriculture. In its 2019 budget, the Massachusetts state legislature has the option to renew the Dairy Tax Credit, which Gardner notes that virtually every dairy farmer uses as insurance in times of low milk prices. But in most cases, the biggest difference between breaking even and breaking down will be determined by the choices made by consumers at the grocery store.

“Understanding the companies that process and sell the local milk is essential to making sure your consumer dollars are returned to the farmers; support farmer-owned brands whenever possible,” says Sam Whittier. And though they may not connote the same appeal as a glass bottle of artisan milk, labels like Hood, Garelick, and Cabot all reflect the efforts of local New England dairy farmers.

“Because of the complexity, you have to be willing to sit in this uncomfortable place where you’re listening and learning before you make any decisions,” advises Peters. Embracing the complexity has become a de facto mantra of the Friedman school, and the nexus of food, environment, and culture will certainly bring plenty more to . “Forgotten Farms” has revealed what’s at stake in New England’s shifting agricultural economy, and has ultimately brought meaning and human connection to the abstract concepts of our curriculum.

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment student about to graduate to greener pastures. She’s developed a love for dairy farming throughout her tenure at Tufts, and hopes to support the industry any way she can throughout her career.

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