Given the rate at which farms are disappearing, it's clear dairy is dying in Vermont.
Not in the view of the Young Farmers of Addison County -- mostly twentysomethings who meet monthly to learn from one another, as well as elders and non-farmers sympathetic to their plight. The informal, year-old group charges no dues, elects no officers and imposes no rules regarding residency or age. A few members live in Rutland and Chittenden counties. "These days," notes Joris Deboer, a 28-year-old dairyman from Vergennes, "anyone under 50 should probably be considered a young farmer."
Pummeled by plummeting milk prices and pounded by weightier workloads, these next-generation farmers have banded together out of determination to sustain their own operations. They're also concerned about the future of family dairying in Vermont's second-milkiest county -- Franklin ranks first. The collective approach doesn't guarantee success or even survival, but it does afford young farmers a range of ideas and resources that would be unavailable if they toiled in isolation, as so many of their predecessors have done.
Social networking may have been the key reason the group took root, suggests Kylie Quesnel, 24, who helps manage an 850-head herd in Whiting. She golfs with a few fellow farmers, and hopes to organize cookouts this summer. Quesnel also points to a strong ethic of mutual support already evident among the young farmers, many of whom did not know one another a year ago. "If one of us had a barn fire, you can bet the people in our group would be the first ones on the scene to help," she says.
Meetings move from farm to farm, Quesnel says, because "farmers are always kind of nosy about how someone else's operation works." But it's more than idle curiosity. On-site gatherings allow the farmers to focus on specific problems and to generate practical ideas for increasing efficiency.
Nothing is more important at a time when costs are escalating and incomes are sinking. "We have no choice but to accept the rising price of our inputs," Quesnel says. "But at the same time we have no control over the price of our outputs. We're buying retail and selling wholesale."
The group can't force milk prices up to a level that exceeds farmers' costs, but it does generate methods of saving money. For example, members may jointly negotiate with hay cutters this summer in order to get the lowest price possible. They're also assessing various stall designs, looking for the most cost-effective options.
"Even though most of us are pretty young," Deboer notes during a recent five-way discussion at a Middlebury pub, "There's a heckuva lot of experience around this table. One of us might say, Hey, I've got this cow that's off. Anybody have a sense of what she's got and what to do about it?"
"I learn a lot from talking with these guys," says 30-year-old Phil Living, the owner of a 275-head dairy in New Haven. "Some of them are milking a lot more cows than me, and they can pass on knowledge from working with so many animals."
The growing size of Vermont dairy herds -- partly a response to falling milk prices -- necessitates new thinking about business procedures. More cows require additional oversight, so managerial skills come into play as well.
To educate its members on that subject, last November the group invited former UVM men's basketball coach Tom Brennan to give a talk on teamwork. "It was an out-of-the-box situation for most of us," says Quesnel, "but it raised issues and ideas that could be applied to what we do."
Brennan's appearance was paid for by a consortium of local agriculture-related businesses that supports the Young Farmers. Feed sellers, veterinary clinics, pharmaceutical dealers and private donors have given more than $10,000 to help the group bring in speakers and finance field trips, such as an upcoming overnighter to visit a number of large-scale dairy farms in western New York.
The search for time-saving techniques becomes more urgent as farmers work longer and harder to compensate for shrinking profit margins. Derrick Dykstra recently put his 100 Holsteins on a three-times-a-day milking regimen to boost output in response to reductions in milk prices. Dykstra says he now works from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
The heightened production has helped keep the burly 24-year-old farmer solvent, but "It's made my life more miserable," he acknowledges with a smile. Dykstra kept milking his herd in New Haven even after a kick from a cow broke one of his thumbs. "I didn't go to the hospital," he says. "I didn't have time."
Deboer estimates that he works 80 to 90 hours a week tending to his 150 milkers and 170 calves and heifers. He's married to a veterinarian and has three siblings; none of them farms, though a sister does work as an artificial-insemination technician in Addison County. Like Dykstra, Deboer is a scion of a farming family that emigrated from the Netherlands to Addison County. "It's a total way of life for me," says Deboer, noting that his name means "the farm" in Dutch.
Deboer recalls having to work in the barn in the mornings before school and again for four hours before homework. "I wasn't allowed to play sports," he says, adding, "It didn't matter, because I wasn't going to make the NBA, anyway."
He's resigned but not resentful. "I never take more than a two-week vacation," he says, "because it drives me crazy to be away from the farm." Still, Deboer's mother and father, who help him run the operation, recently decreed that all three of them must take off one morning per week.
Quesnel, on the other hand, has gone from Whiting around the world and back again. She studied in New Zealand and traveled to 10 other countries examining agricultural practices. "It's given me the big picture," she says. Quesnel and her younger sister, who also works on the family farm, both hold degrees in animal science from Cornell.
Dykstra came back to farming after building houses for his brother-in-law in Pennsylvania. He also worked for an excavating company and as a plumber in Vermont before deciding to buy the New Haven property from his father, who was ready to retire. "I do it because it's great to be outside, and I enjoy the luxury of working for myself," Dykstra says. "I've also had my eyes opened to the business side of the operation, which is very interesting."
Phil Living likes the constantly changing challenges that farming presents. "There's always different kinds of work to do. And the work is different than it was just three or five years ago," he says. Some members of the group are developing specialty products such as cheese and drinkable yogurt rather than relying exclusively on bulk-milk sales.
Adaptability is essential as market conditions shift; technology offers new opportunities while also posing new challenges. But one thing hasn't changed: Dairying remains a male-dominated occupation in Addison County. Only a couple of the group's 40 members are women, Quesnel says. "Women are certainly involved in family farming. They often do milking and chores, but many are also moms, and that takes up a lot of their time."
The group's members are aiming to enhance their influence in their home communities and on a statewide basis. They're thinking about forming some kind of lobbying committee that would apprise legislators of the needs of young farmers: seed liability, manure management, health care, organic certification.
Though none of the young farmers interviewed produces organic milk, Quesnel says her family is considering that option. "It's what our customers want, and it does bring a higher price," she says. Quesnel is also the only one of the five members gathered in Middlebury whose cows are injected with bovine growth hormone. "It's a management decision," she says.
The choices these young farmers make aren't just important for their own fortunes, but also for the future of the state. As Quesnel notes, "Farmers are the ones who maintain the open land that others ski on, snowmobile on, hunt on. It's what gives Vermont its identity. We also have the responsibility to keep the country fed."