Dairy farmers diversify to make a living
BRATTLEBORO -- As the dairy industry continues to suffer from the lowest milk prices in 30 years, Vermont farmers are looking at some inventive new techniques to generate revenue.
Windham County farmers who have worked the land for generations are faced with the challenges of making enough to survive during the dairy crisis, prompting many to re-examine what may serve as a future cash cow.
"There are very, very few dairy farmers who are in a positive cash flow situation right now," said Dennis Kauppila, regional farm business management specialist with the University of Vermont Extension. "The price of milk isn't covering operating costs, let alone the cost of living."
According to Agri-Mark statistics from April, the average milk price for all farmers was $17.39 in 2008. This year the figures have fallen to an average of $12.94, even with the numbers slowly climbing in the late summer.
Many farmers have diversified their land usage -- yielding a greater harvest of other products or promoting themselves in the agri-tourism field -- depending on the skills and marketing ability of the farm managers, said Kauppila.
While a majority of Vermont's dairy farmers earn some off-farm income, only about 36 percent earned more than $12,000 in 2002 and slightly more than 25 percent earned less than that.
The Gaines Farm in Guilford has taken on the venture of a corn maze constructed by the Utah-based company The MAiZE, which has crafted upwards of 215 pieces in 45 states and half-a-dozen countries.
More than 5 acres of feed corn land has transformed into a giant labyrinth in the shape of a bull, noticeable from an aerial view.
The family does not want to sell any of the 110 Holsteins, but each truck hauling away milk adds to the financial burden, said Jacqueline "Jackie" Gaines, who has operated the farm for 32 years with her husband Robert E. Gaines Jr. The family has managed the 200-acre farm since first settling in Guilford more than 225 years ago.
But with record low wholesale milk prices, they needed an alternative source of revenue to ensure the next generation maintains the land.
Gaines said having the "agritainment" attraction -- a combination of local agriculture and entertainment -- will not save the cows single-handedly, but could turn enough profit to continue operations. The family is promoting the maze as a fun adventure for all ages, as well as an educational opportunity for guests interested in the daily workings of an old New England farm.
The corn maze opened to the public last weekend to above average numbers, said Gaines. Many guests have sympathized with the dairy farmers' plight, donating a few extra dollars and offering words of encouragement.
"People will come here based on the fact they realize they are putting some money into a dairy farm," she said. "Some folks come up to me and say ‘we are here to help because we don't want to lose any more dairy farms,' it almost brings tears to your eyes when you hear those kinds of comments."
More information about the Gaines' corn maze is available at their Web site -- gainesfarm.com.
Agri-tourism could become a long-term fix for some dairy farms, said Kauppila, however not all operations can attract sightseers to a corn maze. Other farms have focused their attention on selling meats or establishing vegetable stands during the downturn in milk prices, he added.
The dairy crisis has hit Helen and Charles Robb Sr. of the Robb Family Farm in West Brattleboro, prompting them to increase their sales of hay, logs and maple syrup.
"Anything to drum up some cash," said Charles Robb. "I've never seen it as bad as it is now."
The Robbs have started selling products on the Web site piecesofvermont.com to scrape enough money together to continue operations on the farm.
The online shopping site offers the family a chance to sell a wide range of products from maple sugar candy to seasonal gift baskets.
The mail order returns paid the farm's property taxes in August.
"That is what's holding the farm together at the moment," said Helen Robb. "It's a terrible time we're going through."
The Miller Farm in Vernon has also expanded its on-site operations, increasing the vegetable crops for the farm stand.
Having the stand is helpful, but does not produce enough for a living wage, said Peter Miller, who has managed the farm for 11 years. "I'm making money, but to the tune of five bucks an hour."
He is looking forward to Dec. 1 when the operations will become organic certified.
The Millers also run a farm camp (a hands-on learning experience for people interested in life on a farm) during the summer.
"It offers a good service to the public and brings in a little cash," said Miller.
The Green Mountain State was home to 11,206 dairy farms in 1947, but that number has dropped steadily the last half century. There are now fewer than 1,500 dairy operations in Vermont.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.
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