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Dairy farms turn to cheese for survival

(Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- J.M. Hirsch, Associated Press, 08/04/03: LONDONDERRY, Vt. Five years ago, Jon Wright decided selling milk was the wrong way to run a dairy farm.

Like so many northern New England dairy farmers, Wright struggled to keep his cows and feed his family as a national milk glut deflated prices, leaving him with mounting debt and diminishing revenues.

Selling his milk to distributors sometimes earned him as little as 11 cents per pound less than it cost him to produce it. Hoping to turn that around, he decided turning his milk into cheese held more promise for profits.

Now he sells artisanal Gouda online and in specialty stores for $9 per pound.

Small dairy farmers like Wright increasingly are finding that farming the old-fashioned way won't pay the bills, prompting more and more to turn to niche markets and side businesses.

"If we had continued milking cows we would be out of business by now," Wright said. "The cheese is definitely what has kept us going."

These are tough times for small New England dairy farmers. Many say they are being squeezed out by low prices and competition from large farms out West.

Most New Hampshire farmers earn about $1 per gallon for raw milk, but it can cost anywhere from 83 cents to $1.40 to produce. The state now has just 155 dairy farmers, down from 2,000 in 1960.

In Maine, where milk is a $100 million industry, the number of dairy farms dropped from 775 in 1986 to 412 today. And Vermont has nearly halved its number to 1,459 during the last 15 years.

"There are very few making it solely on the income of milk," said state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor.

He said more cash-strapped farmers are bottling their own milk (allowing them to set the shelf price), growing vegetables to sell at farmers' markets, selling hay or manure compost, or breeding cattle for other farmers.

In Vermont, a booming artisanal cheese industry has grown out of the desperation of dairy farmers. Unlike raw milk, fancy cheeses can be marketed online directly to consumers, many of whom will pay a premium for handmade cheese.

"We not only are marketing this cheese, but we're also marketing Vermont and this way of life," Wright said, while dunking wedges of cheese in a steaming vat of the red wax that Gouda cheese traditionally is packaged in.

Wright, whose Taylor Farm has 45 cows and produces 800 pounds of cheese a week, considered expanding his herd instead of making cheese. But he said it wasn't worth the risk because having more cows doesn't always mean more money.

In Farmington, Maine, L. Herbert York isn't waiting around for the state to save Sandy River Farms, where he has milked a herd of roughly 60 cows for more than 50 years.

Until last August, when he switched to organic farming, York couldn't pay his bills. Now he can charge nearly twice as much for his milk, and can't keep up with demand.

By going organic, York also saves on shipping. He said conventional milk distributors charge farmers for trucking the milk he paid $35,000 last year but demand for organic is so high that distributors collect it for free.

Other Maine dairies are taking advantage of a new law allowing the sale of unpasteurized milk, for which there is a growing demand in the state. As with other specialty products, farmers can charge a premium for this milk.

In New Hampshire, where 10 dairies closed just this year, farmers are doing everything from plowing driveways to switching to goats, said John Porter, a dairy specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

He said the trouble with side ventures is it takes money to try them without any guarantee of success. And lenders aren't always willing to step up when dairies want to start seemingly unrelated businesses.

Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Steve Kerr isn't convinced that branching out is a long-term solution to the dairy dilemma. He said the real solution is raising the price for raw milk. One proposal has been to create a New England brand of milk that consumers might be willing to pay a premium for, with the extra money going to farmers.

But Roger Adams, whose Windyhurst Dairy Farm in Westmoreland, N.H., has 300 cows, said he learned long ago that the strongest farms are those that have diverse sources of income.

Twenty-five years ago his family opened a sugar shack and pancake house across the street from their barn. Despite a rocky start, the business now taps 8,000 trees, ships syrup nationwide and accounts for 25 percent of the family's income.

"It helps us an awful lot to make the farm go," he said while repairing fence posts on his property.

New England Dairy & Food Council: http://www.newenglanddairycouncil.org