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.

Following our Food: A Northern California Supply Chain Adventure

by Christina Skonberg and Krissy Scommegna

How do people at different points of food production make decisions? As part of a directed study on Sustainable Supply Chain Management, Friedman students Krissy Scommegna and Christina Skonberg spoke with representatives at three different food and beverage businesses in California to learn how producers weigh costs and benefits to yield optimal results.

While the Obamas packed up the last of their belongings at the White House on January 19, 2017, we walked through the doors of Jaharis for our last first day of school ever (hats off to the indefatigable PhD students who may still have a few more to go). As we anticipate our transition away from Harrison Avenue in May, we reflect on this crossroads between academia and employment. The Agriculture, Food, and Environment curriculum has taught us to use sound data sources and unbiased modeling techniques to substantiate every claim we make, encouraged us to address how the food system disproportionately advantages some at the expense of others, helped us develop a systems approach to analyzing food production and consumption, and much, much more.

As we embark on one last semester of group study sessions and post-class beers, we return to a central question that drove many of us to attend graduate school in the first place:

How will we effectively apply these tools to real situations involving real people beyond the boundaries of academia? Do farmers in the Northern Plains actually develop quantitative models to determine which wheat varieties they should cultivate given climatic conditions, prices, and market demand? Do food and beverage packaging specialists conduct elaborate life cycle assessments to determine which materials have the lowest carbon footprint? Do retailers meticulously vet suppliers based on environmentally sound soil management practices? Or, do many of these producers forego elaborate methodologies to instead make decisions based on instinct and habit?

In our last four months at Friedman, we’re seeking to address some of these questions through a directed study on Sustainable Supply Chain Management. In speaking with over 20 food industry professionals who operate at different points of diverse supply chains around the country (read: Nebraskan cattle ranchers, Californian coffee procurement specialists, and Pennsylvanian butchers), we hope to explore how food producers optimize outcomes given their unique goals and constraints. In the classroom, we immerse ourselves in the minutiae of soil health, herbicide resistance, tillage techniques, and other important facets of on-farm production. Through site visits and interviews, we hope to deepen our understanding of decisions and tradeoffs beyond the farm gate and into the manufacturing, distribution, retail, and waste sectors of the wider food system.

Eager to escape the New England winter and set out on our supply chain quest, we ventured to Northern California over winter break to conduct our first few interviews. Below, we share stories from a handful of the inspiring producers we met.

Front Porch Farms: Healdsburg, California

Interviewee: Johnny Wilson, Farm Manager

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, California Photo from Front Porch Farm’s Official Website: https://fpfarm.com/

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg, California
Photo from Front Porch Farm’s Official Website: https://fpfarm.com/

On a rare rainy day in Northern California, we trekked to bucolic Healdsburg to see how Front Porch Farm Manager Johnny Wilson cultivates the scenic 110 acre, 30+ crop farm. Perhaps most famous for their perennial cut flowers, wines, and Italian heritage polenta, Front Porch Farm is in many ways a paradigm of ecologically sound production. Drip irrigation systems line orchards, organic compost fertilizes fields, and their giant but gentle puppy Hilde assists in predator control. When asked about how the team determines which seeds to select from catalogs like Baker’s Creek and Seed Savers Exchange (yes, farmers still buy seeds from catalogs!), Johnny explained that while profitability is an undeniably important factor, the team also focuses on the ecological and cultural significance of crops. Enriching the agricultural diversity of Sonoma County (winegrape cultivation currently dominates the region), maintaining a polyculture system that fosters long term soil health and wildlife biodiversity, and experimenting with new varieties that excite the team are all considerations that go into the seed selection process. For Front Porch Farm, the generation of social and environmental value is inextricably linked to the success of their business. To see what diversified farming looks like at Front Porch, check out the map of their impressive agricultural mosaic in Healdsburg.

Blue Bottle Coffee: Oakland, California

Interviewees: Jen Flaxman, Learning and Development Manager & Melissa Tovin, Finance Operations Manager

Blue Bottle’s Roastery and Production Facility in Oakland, California Photo from the Washington Business Journal, December 2016

Blue Bottle’s Roastery and Production Facility in Oakland, California
Photo from the Washington Business Journal, December 2016

Jen Flaxman and Melissa Tovin of Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland are intimately familiar with the complexity of international supply chains. As the Learning and Development Program Manager, Jen ensures that effective employee training and education programs help Blue Bottle employees in California, New York, and Japan thrive in their jobs. Melissa is Blue Bottle’s Finance Operations Manager and she spends much of her time forecasting appropriate procurement quantities for all Blue Bottle cafes (there are 33 globally). Among the many fascinating things we learned from Jen and Melissa was that much of the decision making around procurement quantities of green coffee (unroasted coffee beans) lies within the Finance department of Blue Bottle rather than in the Production department. Melissa—a veritable Excel whiz—explained that this improves accuracy in predicting and meeting demand, allowing the company’s green coffee buyers to focus their energy on developing supplier relationships in the field and upholding coffee quality standards. For Blue Bottle, technical tools like modeling are critical to supply chain decisions, and starting this summer you can taste the quality yourself in Boston. (Students in Chris Peters’ Food Systems Modeling course this semester may want to take note and highlight those analytical skills on their resumes!).

Three Thieves: Napa, California

Interviewee: Roger Scommegna, Thief

Left: Current Packaging for Bandit 1L Tetra Pak; Right: Roger Scommegna in his element Photos Courtesy of Roger Scommegna

Left: Current Packaging for Bandit 1L Tetra Pak; Right: Roger Scommegna in his element
Photos Courtesy of Roger Scommegna

Over a warm cup of non-Blue Bottle Coffee in Berkeley, we discussed the wine industry with beverage entrepreneur Roger Scommegna. Full disclosure, he may have been coerced into this interview due to family ties. As one of the founders of Three Thieves, Roger has spent the past 16 years working to bring high quality wines to the masses at low prices—a noble cause for grad students on a budget. Three Thieves achieved this model by initially packaging their wine in one-liter glass jugs and later establishing an offshoot brand, Bandit, available in half and one-liter Tetra Paks instead of traditional bottles.

Roger provided many insights into the beverage industry, but perhaps most interesting was his perspective on getting products into retail establishments. Roger discussed “gatekeepers” (wine buyers at different grocery chains like Safeway and Costco), and their authority in determining which products to purchase, in what quantity, and at what frequency. While one might expect grocery chains to use a reliable algorithm to determine which products will fare best on shelves, these gatekeepers often make decisions based on the crucial relationship forged between client and buyer. This camaraderie, the client’s ability to highlight differentiating features of their product, and even the restaurant where the business dinner takes place can all sway purchasing decisions. The gatekeeper is a powerful stakeholder in this context and can have a profound influence on a supplier’s brand. Roger recounted an instance when a purchaser told him that while his grocery chain had once regarded Three Thieves as a cutting edge brand, a lack of rebranding efforts had rendered their products outdated. In a successful response, Three Thieves conducted a branding overhaul and regained the favor of this key buyer.

At this early stage in our adventure, we’ve learned that—as is typically the case in science—the answer to our question about how producers make supply chain decisions depends. It depends on product, scale, metrics of success, and several other factors. Some decisions are based on models and economic analysis while others are more grounded in personal experience and preference. We look forward to speaking with the rest of our gracious interviewees over the course of the semester to learn more about the tools and motivations people use to make discerning production decisions. We’re indebted to the professors and faculty who’ve poured their energy into honing our technical skills and expanding our intellectual curiosities, and we hope that this opportunity helps bridge our academic lives with the professional endeavors we pursue after graduation.

Christina Skonberg is a 2nd year AFE student from Berkeley, CA who is trying to embrace the New England winter but couldn’t resist smuggling a suitcase full of Californian produce back to Boston in January. Krissy Scommegna is also a 2nd year AFE student who was happy to see her home in Boonville, CA in its rainy glory in January, even if it meant digging trenches against flooding and building fires in the wood stove to stay warm. Second-year AFE student Carrie DeWitt will also be participating in this directed study, but was unable to attend meetings in California in January. Stay tuned for more information about their end of semester presentation on Best Practices in Supply Chain Management, coming in May.