Guest columnist Sarah S. Gardner: ‘We can’t afford to take our farmers for granted anymore’

  • In this 2017 file photo, Darryl Williams feeds calves at Luther Belden Farm on Depot Road in North Hatfield. gazette file photo

Published: 6/18/2020 4:15:20 PM

Massachusetts dairy farmers are essential to our state’s food supply. They are essential workers who have been laboring around the clock through the pandemic to make milk for us in Massachusetts.

Dairy is the state’s largest agricultural sector in terms of output and job creation. Dairy farms circulate millions into local economies. What’s more, thanks to our dairy industry in Massachusetts, we have been well supplied with dairy products through the COVID months. Farmers have donated thousands of gallons of milk to feed the hungry, including the one in four children who don’t get enough to eat.

With almost a quarter of Massachusetts’ residents experiencing food insecurity since the pandemic began, this is time to support our farms and strengthen agriculture. Commercial dairy farms safeguard our food security, yet they are facing a crisis themselves. Even before the pandemic hit, milk prices were on a five-year slide. Consumption was on the decline and farmers took another hit last year when President Trump started a trade war with China, a major overseas market for dairy. Then this spring, virtually overnight, sales halved as food services and restaurants closed to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Darryl Williams, who with his son, Jackson, farms their 180-milking cow dairy in Hatfield, is one of many farmers who fears he won’t be able to stay in business. After five years of low milk prices, and debt from a necessary investment in a voluntary robotic milking system, they were looking forward to a year of more income from their milk. But as a result of the pandemic price dive, they are now selling each 100 pounds of milk at $7 below what it costs to produce it.

“The May and June prices are catastrophic for all dairy farmers,” says Williams. “We are blessed with the help of the Massachusetts Dairy Tax Credit, but it doesn’t make us whole. The pandemic has pushed us to the brink.”

The system is unfair to our essential farmers.

Massachusetts has 117 family dairy farms that produce enough milk to supply half the state’s needs. Four major dairy plants across the state — Hood, Garelick, Friendly’s, and Agri-Mark Cabot — bottle and process milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese and ice cream that supplies supermarkets and mini-marts. Several other dairy farms produce and process their own products.

“We are in danger of losing a critical part of our food supply when we need it most,” said Ed Townley, chief executive of Agri-Mark Cabot Creamery.

It’s risky to rely on other regions for 90% of our food, especially when it means dependence on dwindling Midwestern aquifers, California’s unreliable water supply, and long-haul trucking. We can’t afford to take our farmers for granted anymore.

The federal milk pricing system disadvantages New England dairy farmers. We can’t do much to change that pricing system, but we can use our purchasing power at the grocery store. We can befriend and defend the farms in our communities and we can support state programs like the Dairy Farm Tax Credit, which has kept our farms afloat when the milk price takes a plunge (every month this year), and the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program, which keeps farmland affordable for farmers.

June is National Dairy Month, a time to express gratitude to farmers. As you sip your iced coffee, dig in to your take-out pizza or enjoy an ice cream cone this month, take a moment to consider the source of the milk, cheese and ice cream. There’s a good chance it was produced and processed in Massachusetts.

Milk is an affordable, vegetarian, protein-rich local product made from rain-fed grass converted by a cow into a nutrient-dense, low fat food packed with all nine essential amino acids that people need. You could say it’s the original plant-based milk: more nutritious than its imitators. If you’ve switched to “milk” made from almonds grown in California, soy from Brazil, Midwestern oats, or Southeast Asian coconuts, consider switching back to cow’s milk this month.

Buying Massachusetts’ dairy products supports our farmers, our farmland, and ensures our future food security.

Sarah S. Gardner is chair of the Williamstown Agricultural Commission and works at the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College. She encourages people to help the hungry by donating a gallon of milk to a local food bank through the Give a Gallon Campaign:


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