Randolph — “I can’t get her pregnant again.”
Joan Wortman looked into the trusting brown eyes of the blue roan cow standing beside her, the walls of the barn a cozy sanctuary against the gray April morning sky. “Huh, Dolly?”
Then, said so low that it was almost under her breath:
Wortman, slender, her gray shoulder-length hair tied beneath a handkerchief, has a habit of expressing emotions in this matter-of-fact way, without allowing them to take her. But the brisk attentiveness that served her well both as a nurse and as a farmer was being severely tested, now that she and her husband were selling the family farm to a young farmer who had dreams of making a go of it. The sale both mirrors and contradicts the current state of Vermont’s dairy industry. It accurately reflects the difficult financial straits many of the state’s aging farmers find themselves in, but departs from the norm because there is at least some hope that someone younger will manage to keep the farm a viable dairy operation.
Dolly’s stubborn lack of fertility was the latest problem for an animal that was, demonstrably, not a good cow.
The other 77 cows on Green Acres Farm were carefully bred through an artificial insemination program designed to maximize valuable genetic traits, but Dolly was the product of an unbridled and messy passion, an illicit 2006 affair that began when a randy Holstein bull jumped the neighbor’s fence and impregnated Dolly’s Shorthorn mother.
Since then, she’d been nothing but trouble — high fevers and hard udders from chronic mastitis; a compulsive shuffling that made the daily task of applying iodine to her teats and wiping them clean an exercise in patience; and a phobic fear of needles that often had Wortman puffing and panting as she struggled to bring Dolly’s head around for a shot of medicine.
Dolly also happened to be Wortman’s favorite cow.
She’s one of the few in the barn who was born before Wortman’s mother, Ruth Shumway, died in 2008 and left the herd to Wortman and her husband, Craig Wortman. While Joan spoke, Craig, who rarely stopped moving, busily wheeled tubs of silage around the inside perimeter of the barn, dumping piles on the ground for Dolly and the other cows to eat.
When Dolly was born, a few students from the Vermont Technical College were there, doing chores in exchange for free rent in the farmhouse. The students fell for Dolly’s cuteness, “a little doll” with downy black-tipped ears that made her look like an outsized rabbit.
Since then, Dolly’s stubborn Yankee personality had helped her secure the unofficial position of herd matriarch.
“She’s the ringleader. You know, when the cows go out, she leads them,” Wortman said, with admiration. “When Dolly goes, they all go. If Dolly stops, they all stop.”
Dolly and Wortman had a natural bond; if she saw Wortman had no needle in her hand, the cow was friendly and affectionate. On the way back into the barn from pasture, Dolly often walked past her stall to prolong her freedom, but if Wortman called sharply to her, she’d look at her owner, then slink into her stall like a petulant child caught stealing cookies.
Over the past months, as Wortman and her husband came to grips with the difficult decision to sell Green Acres, Dolly’s fate was one of the many details that needed attention. Dairy farmers have a calculating machine in the back of their heads that tallies up a cow’s value — a blend of milk volume, milkfat percentage, ability to breed, genetic heritage and show potential — against a cow’s costs, which include medical treatments, the grain bill, and time and effort that could be spent on a more productive cow.
At some point, as a cow’s milk production dwindles, the farmer begins to seriously consider its meat potential.
“I sent a cow last week and I just got a check from her,” Wortman said. “I got 78 cents a pound.”
In her own milking heyday, Dolly yielded an impressive 23,000 pounds of milk in a year. Over the years, Dolly gave birth to several calves — an all-white heifer named Dollop, an all-black heifer named Dash, a calf that was born six weeks early and died, and a black bull. but none had amounted to really solid milkers.
Wortman pointed out Dolly’s latest, a red heifer named Dimple, born last May. “The first one you see looking at us, with the dopey head.” Dimple lacked her mother’s backbone. “She’s a goofball.”
And now, despite months of efforts, Dolly won’t get bred. Her milk supply, which hasn’t been at its peak for years, soon would dry up completely. There would be no more calves. No more value.
As failed breeding attempts piled up, Wortman began adding a new element into the calculus. After all, she told herself, Dolly saved the Wortmans time and money by making it easier to get the other cows in and out of the pasture.
“Who else is going to lead the cows out?” Wortman asked, as if testing the argument aloud.
Cows like Dolly and farmers like Wortman are out of the public eye, so it’s not always apparent how critically important their survival is to the state, but they — and the dairy industry — are undergoing a quiet crisis.
Behind the peeling red paint of the cattle barn, an antiquated way of life is unraveling, with possibly far-ranging consequences for thousands of workers in Vermont’s dairy industry, and hundreds of thousands of Vermonters who have a stake in the tourism industry or simply take pride in the rolling green of the cow pasture and the ability to buy locally produced milk and cheese.
When people talk about Vermont’s agricultural industry, they’re really talking about operations like the Wortmans’, whose 90-acre farm on Route 14 has all the iconic elements that appeal to Vermonters who like a little barn in their view — upper and lower pastures for grazing; a farmhouse (the Wortmans live 4 miles away, in Bethel, so it housed the college students); a concrete manure pit; and a cattle barn equipped with a grain silo and piping that shuttles the milk to a storage tank for pickup.
About 80 percent of Vermont’s farmland is devoted to dairy. In fact, 15 percent of the total acreage in the state — 900,000 acres — is either dairy farms or pasture to support dairy cows.
A 2016 report from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture put the total value of dairy products sold in the state at $1.3 billion per year, twice as much as the revenue from fruits, vegetables, sheep, maple syrup, Christmas trees, pigs, poultry and eggs combined.
That entire economy rests on the shoulders of a surprisingly small number of dairy farms — just 868. The vast majority of these farms, 749, have, like the Wortmans, fewer than 200 milking cows.
There are troubling signs that these farmers — a tired group dominated by seniors getting older by the day — may collapse under the strain of a market that demands far more than it gives.
To Craig Wortman, 62, whose jeans and T-shirt were already dirty with the morning’s work, the farming lifestyle has a value that goes far beyond the price of a gallon of milk. A chimney sweep originally from New Jersey, Wortman’s long, kind face is framed by a shock of dark hair up top and a white-whiskered chin — a face that grew longer as he thought about the end of his dairy career.
He always liked the cattle barn, he said, but never more than in the peaceable darkness of Christmas Eve, when the students went home, and he stood alone with the cows, ruminating on cheerful dinners and sacred holiday traditions unfolding in the homes of extended family members, shuttered safe from the cold.
“It’s warm in the barn,” he said. “It’s comfortable, when you’re done and the cows have food. All you hear is them contentedly kind of lowing, you know, or chomp, chomping on grass.”
But the herd’s last Christmas was behind them. Like his wife, Craig sometimes veered away from emotional topics to avoid losing control. Work needed doing.
“Yeah. Yep,” he said. “It was, yeah.” Dairy History
“I would bet 99 percent of my paycheck,” Joan Wortman said, “that we are the only herd in the country that can trace every single one of their animals back registration-wise ... for 80 years. ... I didn’t have to buy them. They were given to me. And my mother got them from her father.”
The history of Green Acres Farm dates back to 1910, when Wortman’s great-grandfather, J.F. Withington, began purchasing what eventually would become 300 acres of property in Hartland, including about 100 acres of prime farmland along the Connecticut River.
This happened at a time when Vermont’s agricultural economy was undergoing a dramatic shift, according to a 2010 report from the University of Vermont.
In the early 1900s, Vermont’s traditional sheep industry, which had boomed to meet the demand for wool for Civil War soldiers’ uniforms, foundered, causing many farmers to switch to dairy cows. With its harsh winters, limited prime soils, and mountainous terrain, Vermont couldn’t produce dairy as cheaply as in some parts of the country, but dairy reigned here because it was “the product of least disadvantage,” according to the report. “By the end of World War II, there was barely a Vermont farm that did not have milk cows.”
In the late 1920s, Wortman’s grandfather, Philo Withington, became one of the first graduates from the Vermont School of Agriculture, which was housed in the Lyndon Institute. When Withington took over his father’s farm, he founded the Upper Valley’s first milking Shorthorn herd.
Most breeds are specialists — big Holsteins deliver huge quantities of milk, while little Jerseys have high butterfat content. But the rugged Shorthorns, which originated in Britain, are generalists.
“They were just very hardy cows,” Joan Wortman said. “Good for milk, good for meat, good for work.”
Withington’s daughter, Ruth, was born in 1933 and grew up on the Hartland farm, watching as the post-WWII era brought the widespread adoption of electricity, tractors, bulk milk storage tanks, milking machines and artificial insemination.
Federal laws hastened these changes by imposing safety regulations that tied milk price guarantees to sanitation requirements; in the 1960s, the number of dairy farms began to dramatically decline, as farmers scaled up or quit the fields.
As her father aged, Ruth Withington took over Green Acres, earning a reputation in Hartland’s farming community for her commitment to the family herd in the face of adversity, including a divorce from her first husband.
“My mother was a piece of work,” Joan Wortman said. “ ... She had to milk the cows first before she would come to my high school graduation, so by the time she got the cows milked and came to graduation, it was over. The cows were her life.”
She clung to dairy farming even when tragedy struck. Nieces playing with sparklers one Fourth of July set fire to the five-story round barn, which Ruth had used as a storehouse for antiques. They were all lost, as were about 20 cows. Ruth rebuilt the barn.
In 1978, she married a local farmer named Bud Shumway; four months after the wedding, while installing water pipes into the driveway, he was crushed to death. She kept his name for the rest of her life.
In the ‘80s, another fire burned the house down, leaving Shumway with nothing but her nightgown. She rebuilt the house.
In 1994 (“a cold freaking day in January,” her daughter said), Shumway brought the herd to Randolph. She continued to work the farm, but in the 2000s, age began to take away what other hardships could not.
“Her shoulders were bad,” Wortman said. “Her knees were bad. Her back was bad. We lived 4 miles away, so we came down to help a little. Help a little more. Help a little more.”
In 2008, Shumway died, leaving the Wortmans with 90 dairy cows and an operation that lagged behind the times.
The Wortmans modernized Green Acres, instituting a rotational grazing schedule on 28 paddocks. To address concerns about impacts on the Second Branch of the White River, which runs through the property, they erected fencing to keep cattle from crossing the brook, and also installed a 300,000-gallon concrete manure pit.
Despite the changes, the Wortmans had no ambitions to swap the family herd for a more profitable breed, or to scale up to the size of operations in the Champlain Valley, where the wide-open geography has encouraged consolidation. Small traditional dairy farms are becoming relics, bearing little resemblance to the thousand-cow herds serviced by drive-through feed alleys in free-stall barns, automated feed dispensers and robotic milkers.
In 2010, the University of Vermont report called dairy the “800-pound gorilla” in Vermont’s agricultural economy, but it warned that the gorilla was sickening.
Six years later, the gorilla is on life support. Who’s On Deck?
“Other farmers just want to keep going, keep plugging along, keep going, keep plugging along, and some day, something bad’s going to happen,” Wortman said.
Wortman, 62, recognized the writing on the wall. When she looked in the mirror she began to see echoes of her mother. Eight years of getting bumped and bruised by the half-ton wards she inherited took their toll. Both shoulders were injured, leaving her with limited range of motion. When she got up from a chair, it would take several steps to get her knees going.
Plans to pass Green Acres on to family had faded. Kylie and Virginia, the oldest and youngest daughters, expressed an interest at different times, but ultimately moved to North Carolina — Virginia, 24, works in a counseling clinic while Kylie, 37, works for a nutrition company.
“Once you get into college, you got those college bills to pay,” Wortman said. “A small family farm, that wasn’t where she was going.”
The other two children never had much of an interest. Kelly, 35, is a leasing agent in an apartment complex in Georgia, and Keith, 34, runs an excavation firm with family in Cornish.
Wortman wasn’t alone. She was experiencing what agricultural experts have identified as one of the biggest threats to Vermont’s dairy industry: the succession problem.
The shrinking dairy industry is helmed by a graying group of farmers who never know when they’re going to milk their last cow.
In 1992, two years before Shumway brought her milking Shorthorn herd to Randolph, there were 2,373 milk cow operations in the state. Today, there are 868, more than a quarter of them operated by senior citizens. The 2012 Agricultural Census found 91 percent of Vermont’s 2,076 senior farmers had no one younger than 45 working with them.
As this generation of farmers dies off, they leave an uncertain future for the farms they manage. Over the next decade or two, more than a quarter of Vermont’s farmers will exit farming, leaving 364,000 acres and $1.2 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure in the wind, according to a study published this year by Land For Good, a Keene, N.H.-based nonprofit.
Though the local food movement and other factors have fueled an uptick in the overall number of Vermont farms, those in the subset of dairy farms continue to decline.
The reasons are obvious, said Gary Keough, who works for USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service as Vermont’s state statistician.
Vegetable farms can be started on a shoestring budget, and crops can be sold on a low-volume, high-margin basis capable of providing income and growth potential. A dairy farm, on the other hand, requires a massive upfront investment in land, cows, and equipment, and the market outlook for the product — milk — is bleak.
Even the Wortmans, whose farm came via inheritance, poured cash into the infrastructure. Farmers get about $1.30 for each gallon of milk they sell. The manure pit cost more than $200,000, and renovating the farmhouse to house the college students cost another $60,000. To finance the improvements, they took out a $160,000 mortgage on the property.
“There’s no way a young person can start off, buying a farm, buying cows, buying their equipment,” Wortman said. “You would never see the light of day. Never. It would be impossible.”
A dairy farm’s pricey infrastructure plays directly into the succession problem, said Jim Habana Hafner, executive director of Land for Good, because the incoming farmer is unlikely to have money to buy the farm outright, but the outgoing farmer typically needs the equity of the farm’s assets to fund a retirement.
With careful planning, a farmer can locate a buyer and arrange for a transition that makes sense for both parties, but the process can take years. And sometimes a farmer’s physical or financial health collapses, which makes things much worse, said Jon Ramsay, director of the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program.
“That could lead to a quick disposition of a property where there isn’t a lot of time to plan to get a succession plan in place,” he said.The Slaughterhouse
Back in the dairy barn, Wortman lingered by Dolly. Sometimes a change in ownership is a death knell for a dairy operation. Other times, it’s a death knell for a cow.
Working through the Farmland Access Program, the Wortmans found a buyer for the farm, but the new owner had no interest in maintaining Green Acres’ Shorthorn herd. The cows were scheduled to be auctioned off in two weeks.
To prepare for the auction, the herd would be brought to the barn to have their hooves neatly trimmed and their hair washed using a gallon jug of dish detergent, all in service of fetching the best price.
But Dolly, who could no longer get pregnant, would not be washed. She had no value on the auctioneer’s block. Even the slim pretext of using her to lead the herd in and out of the cattle barn was about to expire, bringing Wortman’s personal affection for the cow up against an unforgiving reality.
Dolly’s stall would be needed to house a cow that could sell.
The slaughterhouse truck, Wortman said, sweeps through the area on Mondays and Thursdays.
Dolly, she said, would be on that truck. She patted the gray head, looked at Dolly’s enormous eyes, and grimaced, speaking in a voice that was stoic and composed.
“I’ve got two weeks.”
Follow this series online at www.vnews.com/dairy.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.