Randolph — “Testing.”
Ron Wright’s bass voice was so warm and folksy it seemed to have a texture of its own, rolling out from beneath his white mustache, across a few inches of the beautiful May morning, and into the microphone, amplified for the taciturn farmers sitting on folding chairs beneath a white tent. “You folks check your pockets, if someone had some money on them. We found a pretty good chunk of money over here in front of the milk house.”
Wright was at the Wortmans’ 90-acre Green Acres Farm in Randolph, preparing to sell their herd of milking Shorthorns to the highest bidders. Like many dairy farmers, Joan and Craig Wortman were getting out of the business — they were aging, and they hadn’t made money on it anyway, even before milk prices collapsed. Though it made sense, breaking up the herd, which had a century of history with Joan’s family, was tough.
“We’re not here to take your money,” Wright told the farmers. Then he realized what he had just said, and offered a hasty amendment.
“We want to take it honestly.”
The crowd included 75 bidding farmers, as well as friends and looky-loos who had come to see the end of the Wortmans’ long run as stewards of a nationally recognized herd of milking shorthorns.
At times, the bidding farmers seemed like a circle of vultures, picking over the remaining herd, trying to get an underpriced cow that would serve as financial sustenance and stave off their own eventual appointment at the auctioneer’s block.
Other times, they seemed like a circle of support, battered themselves by the intense market forces that drove the Wortmans to sell their farm, there to offer words of comfort, sympathy and support.
In reality, they were a little bit of each, some sitting, some standing or heading over to a food truck to buy coffee or a breakfast sandwich.
Craig Wortman stood, dispassionate, his arms crossed, chatting about the day’s little details so he wouldn’t have to think about the big picture — the loss of the farm.
Two weeks before, Joan Wortman had been stoic as she discussed plans to send her favorite cow, Dolly, to the slaughterhouse because the aging cow was no longer fertile, and was therefore not salable. But with the reality of auction day everywhere, her eyes were red-rimmed. She compared the herd dispersal sale to auctioning off her children.
“As long as you’re not nice to me, I’m fine,” she said gamely. “If you’re nice to me, I’ll start crying.”
About 15 minutes later, their daughter, Kylie Preisinger, took the microphone from Wright to announce the beginning of the sale, offering a brief summary of the herd’s 85-year history. She didn’t mention money.
“We’re real hopeful they’ll all get some good homes,” she said.
As Kylie began thanking people — friends, the sales crew, the 4-H club — Joan Wortman began crying again. Kylie ran out of people to thank.
“I guess with that,” she said, her voice breaking, “thanks and take them home.”
The dairymen came from Maine and Canada, New York and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Indiana. They also came from different eras — all wore jeans and boots, but the world-weary oldest were marked by suspenders, eyeglasses and badly weathered ballcaps, while the youngest had sunglasses hooked over the wide necks of their T-shirts, the brims of their ballcaps containing more snap than fray.
But one young man stood out from the crowd, 120 lean pounds stretched over a 5-foot, 11-inch frame, his jeans defying gravity to hang onto his whippet-thin hips, a ready smile that revealed teeth in amiable disarray, just 22 years old but with a ballcap as frayed as a man thrice his age.
Matt Deome was up from Pennsylvania, but he didn’t plan to bid on a single cow. He had come to buy the farm itself.
A New Farmer Joins the Herd
Vermont’s dairy farmers say these are tough times, and they’re right. But Deome’s seen worse.
His father, Chuck Deome, a former assistant manager at Billings Farm in Woodstock, spent the last several years as the farm manager at the Lands of Hillside Farms in Shavertown, a town of about 2,000 people located a half-hour’s drive out of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania.
There, as development pressures drove up the cost of land, the fracking industry delivered the coup de grace to many dairy operations by offering farmers more for land rights than dairy could ever compete with. Over the last four years, all eight of the dairy operations in Deome’s township closed down, he said.
Deome is something of an oddity — a young man prepared to make a go of it in a struggling industry where the average age is 57.3. If any 22-year-old can be ready to assume the responsibility of running a dairy operation, Deome — knowledgeable, straight-talking, committed and enthusiastic — would seem to be the one.
While working for his father as a teenager in Pennsylvania, he rose from being a calf feeder to the herdsman. At 16, he bought his first cow, a Holstein named Buttercup, for $3,000, and didn’t look back, amassing his own small herd.
Deome considered a career as a history teacher, but when he was 18, he traded in his textbooks for haybales and strode into the federal Farm Service Agency’s Pennsylvania office to apply for his first loan.
For the last couple of years, Deome has been renting a former horse farm in Montrose, Pa., and using it to house his own herd, which now numbers about 110 milking Holsteins and Jerseys.
While online, Deome came across the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program, which called for applicants to purchase the Wortman farm.
Like the Wortmans, the Deomes are a small family operation where personal relationships with the animals occasionally outweigh the profit motive.
A few years ago, one of their cows gave birth to a premature calf, smaller than the family dog, her undeveloped hooves the consistency of Jell-O. With winter temperatures bottoming out at 30 below zero, the baby’s life should have been forfeited — chances of getting a return on investment were slim. But the Deomes brought her into the kitchen and set her up on a tarp beside the woodstove. They fed her milk from a bottle in 5-ounce installments. Today, her name is Faith, and she’s a milker.
But the Deomes also are mindful of practicality. If meat prices are good, Deome said, there’s no sense in forestalling a cow’s end by a month or two, which could cost $400 in lower meat prices.
He said he wants to bring more young people into dairy farming, show them it can work. The problem is, for many, a catastrophic drop in milk prices means it can’t.
The Price of Milk
“Milk is down so much.”
After buying two of the Wortmans’ Shorthorns for what he considered a dirt-cheap price, David Townsend, a senior farmer in a white shirt, left his post at the rear of the auction tent to buy a boat of french fries from the food truck.
Townsend bankrolled his first dairy cows with paychecks from a construction job. Now he’s got 430 head in two barns on his farm, on the town line between Bethel and Randolph on Route 12. He said the low price of milk was bewildering.
“I don’t understand it: How come the milk doesn’t go up and the prices keep up?” he asked. “Because what they’re doing is, they’re driving the farmers right out of business.”
There’s no sugarcoating it, said Andrew Marshall, a director for Land For Good, a Keene, N.H.-based nonprofit.
“The conventional milk market is in the toilet,” he said. “It’s very depressed. It’s been that way for a year, and it’s going to remain that way.”
Farmers sell milk in units of 100 pounds. Two years ago, a hundredweight of milk (roughly 11.6 gallons) sold for $25.30. In April, the price was $15, according to the USDA.
Joan Wortman said she’s getting less for her milk now than her mother got in the ’90s.
“I think it’s about the hardest it’s ever been,” said Pat Fitzgerald, a Colchester, Vt., dairy farmer who came to see the auction.
The milk market is affected by a variety of factors that are difficult to pin down — consumer trends, domestic supply, weather and regional patterns, government regulations, and foreign markets. Historically, milk prices were relatively stable through the 1980s, according to a 2010 University of Vermont report. In those years, the industry was buoyed by a relatively high price guarantee from the federal government, which spent $2.6 billion to buy 12 percent of the country’s milk supply in 1983.
Concerned about the spiraling cost of the programs, Congress introduced two new federal programs — the Dairy Diversion Program and the Dairy Termination Program, which sought to lessen production by paying farmers to get out of the business.
When that didn’t stem the rising tide of milk flooding the market, Congress cut support for the price guarantee program, which in 1990 led to the beginning of the modern era of milk prices: dramatic fluctuations created by suddenly untethered market forces.
A May price forecast from the USDA cited “high stocks of dairy products and higher expectations for milk production and imports” while offering little hope of relief for the farmers who depend on their milk check.
The forecast for 2016 is between $14.60 and $15.10, which works out to about $1.30 a gallon, less than a third of the $4 gallon of milk on the supermarket shelf.
Deome said dairy farming feels like a job — a good, hard job — but it doesn’t pay like one.
“It’s an honest living, but you can never make a living,” he said. “You’re always fighting to stay afloat.”
Marshall said that farmers are getting hit from two sides — not only are milk prices low, but operation costs are high.
“What the farmer gets is pretty grim,” he said. “It’s below the cost of production.”
In the mid-2000s, as the U.S. addressed an energy crisis by redirecting its corn and soybean crops into ethanol production, the cost of feed for dairy cows began to soar, to $5.71 in September 2008 from $2.20 in September 2006. As a result, many dairy farmers saw their cost of production go up by 30 percent, according to the University of Vermont report.
Corn prices have come down somewhat, to about $3.50, but the corn-to-milk ratio is still dramatically worse for dairy farmers than it’s been historically.
Farmers also are spending more money to keep up with the regulatory framework established in the 1960s — governments offering both subsidies, and ever-stricter requirements, to dairy farms.
During the most recent legislative session alone, Vermont lawmakers passed four laws tweaking farming regulations on everything from raw milk sales to on-site slaughtering.
Jon Ramsay, who brought the Wortmans and the Deomes together through the Farmland Access Program, said that, while small farms are exempt from many of the requirements of large farms, there is constant pressure from public health and environmental advocates to reduce those exemptions.
For example, new rules being proposed by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to comply with Act 64, a bill that sought to curtail runoff pollution, would require small farms to develop manure-management plans and comply with a more restrictive set of agricultural practices.
As these forces — low milk prices, high costs, regulatory burdens — squeeze the industry, Wright’s phone has begun to ring on a daily basis from dairy farmers who have decided to call it quits. He usually declines their business because the farmers are too financially stressed to make good on their commitments.
“I’ve been turning them down,” he said. “I don’t want to be on the books for people not paying me, and chasing my money.”
Many farmers, he said, have lost so much money they can’t afford to quit — selling off their assets would leave them in debt, so their only hope is to hold on and hope things will change for the better.
Making it Work
The Wortmans have paid a price for trying to keep the family herd intact. Joan Wortman said that, far from making a profit, they’ve lost between $20,000 and $30,000 each year for the last eight years.
Deome’s plan was to work the same farm, with the same number of cows, and turn a profit. How?
Deome’s animals — high-volume Holsteins and fat-laden Jerseys — are more efficient milk-producers than the Wortmans’ Shorthorns.
Despite the poor milk prices, he says he’ll be better off in Vermont than in Pennsylvania, even accounting for the fact that it’s more expensive to take a herd through a freezing Vermont winter, because Vermont has some built-in advantages.
Deome said the Wortmans’ access to pasture land will allow his cows to spend more time outside, saving him $24,000 on sawdust; Vermont also has a more competitive grain supplier market, which translates to lower grain prices, saving him another estimated $2,400 a month.
Deome also will lean on some free labor — his family. His parents Chuck and Amy Deome, a brother and two sisters are moving to Vermont with him.
Of course, they’ll get second jobs.
It turns out, that’s what dairy farmers do.
Despite the prominence of a dairy industry that accounts for two-thirds of Vermont’s much-touted agricultural economy, the majority of dairy farmers can’t rely on it as a source of income.
After tending to the cows each morning, Craig Wortman hurried off to meet his first chimney sweeping customer for the day. Every workday, Joan Wortman, who works at Gifford Medical Center, swapped out her nursing scrubs for farmer’s boots and workclothes.
The Deomes aren’t planning to draw a paycheck from the dairy operation either. When milk prices are low, Matt Deome said, family members plan to put money from those other incomes into the farm to float it along.
“The cows will pay for themselves, and everyone else is going to figure out how to make some money,” Chuck Deome said.
To make extra cash, Chuck Deome will set up a blacksmith shop to make colonial-era door latches, hinges and bakers’ racks, and hold weekend workshops. His wife, Amy Deome, an antiques dealer and a teamster, will teach others to drive oxen. Their daughter, Emma Deome, works as a relief milker, going from barn to barn to cover other dairy families that want to take a vacation. The others will look for work, as well.
That’s the norm. In 2012, roughly 80 percent of Vermont’s farms had less than $50,000 in gross sales, according to the USDA. The average dairy farmer draws only a few thousand dollars in annual pay — far below the poverty line, according to Jim Habana Hafner, Land for Good’s executive director.
“I think it’s safe to say,” said Gary Keough, the USDA’s statistician for Vermont, “that 95 percent of farms rely on some off-farm income.”
‘Her Run Was a Good One’
After the emotional kickoff to the auction, the Wortmans had regained their composure, and seemed happy to see many of their cows going to barns operated by people they already knew.
In front of the crowd, a white-shirted handler from the 4-H Club led a red cow named Dimple around in a circle for the bidders to see.
Dimple was special to Joan Wortman: she was the last calf born to Dolly, Wortman’s favorite cow and the aged herd matriarch.
Before Wright called for bids, his partner, Casey Weiss, president of the Ohio Milking Shorthorn Society, hyped her up for the bidders.
“The dam of this heifer is Green Acres’ I’mADoll, who made over 23,000 pounds of milk as a 5-year-old,” he said. “She’s big enough, and good enough, and has the frame to have this year.”
With the Wortmans looking on, Wright opened the bidding.
“What a lady!” he said, admiration dripping from his bass voice. “Who will give me $1,800? $1,800, where? 18, 18, 18, $1,800?”
With no takers, Wright dropped the opening bid to $1,500, then to $1,000. Silence from the crowd. He went lower, to $900, before one of his spotters spied a raised bidding paddle, crying out the news like he was at a church revival. More paddles started to go up.
Within a minute or two, Dimple had been sold.
“She’s gone down the road for $1,175,” Wright said. “A nice buy.”
In all, the Wortmans would clear about $85,000 on the auction, enough to pay off half of a $160,000 mortgage they’d taken out to pay for a manure pit and improvements to the farmhouse.
Joan Wortman was stoic about the loss of Dimple, as she had been about the loss of the herd. It was a practical consideration, she said.
But Wortman’s sentimentality also was in evidence.
Dolly, it turned out, had not boarded the meat truck after all. She was still tethered to her spot in a rear stall of the barn. Wortman said she’d found a reason to extend Dolly’s life, but the stay of execution wouldn’t be for long.
Keeping Dolly and two other nonsalable cows allowed her to maintain a small flow into the milk-storage tank, which would prevent the system from going dormant during the transition.
As soon as the Deomes brought in their animals, Dolly would have outlived her usefulness, and would be put on the next available slaughterhouse truck.
She’d like to keep Dolly alive, Wortman said — over the years, the stubborn old Yankee cow had endeared itself to her — but it just wasn’t possible.
“Unfortunately you just, you can’t,” she said. She looked at the barn around her, friends and strangers buying fragments of her herd.
Of her life.
“Everything comes to an end. And her run was a good one.”
Follow this series online at www.vnews.com/dairy.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.