The picturesque dairy farms of New England are an industry in transition. From over 10,000 dairy farms some years ago, only about 2000 are still in production. Forgotten Farms considers what has put these small dairy farms at risk and what further change might mean for the region.
Small-production dairy farms bring benefits beyond milk production: Land reserved for growing feed preserves scenic views that otherwise fall to tract-housing development. Each cow generates $14,000 per year of economic activity. Ecosystem services of water management and nutrient recycling are difficult to measure but easy to bemoan once the farmland is paved over with driveways.
The farmers multitask to an impressive extent: part veterinarian, mechanic, meteorologist, athlete, and business manager. These experts, though, are starting to look like a new class of subsistence farmers. As increasing urbanization puts more distance—and ignorance—between most consumers and their food-production systems, misunderstandings can arise between farmers and those who live nearby. Some aspects of dairy farming are messy and smelly, attributes residential neighbors often don’t appreciate, but also often don’t equate with local availability of fresh milk and artisan cheeses.
The balance between milk prices and operating expenses produced a secure living when driven by local markets in generations past. Now, lean years outnumber good years as milk markets become more global and small dairy farms in New England find themselves competing with large-scale industrial operations in the Midwest and elsewhere. At the same time, increasing emphasis on local food production is shifting the public’s perception of what small farms can be, which may yet open new doors for these regional dairy producers.