Randolph — “Right now, there’s a heifer down.”
Chuck Deome was standing in the dairy barn that his son, Matt Deome, had recently purchased from the Wortman family. The cow wasn’t suffering from the weather, not on this temperate June morning, but if she didn’t gain her feet, she would have to be shot.
The Deomes hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“Every day, we go out to water her and feed her, and roll her from side to side,” Chuck Deome said.
Matt Deome, 22 and rail-thin, was milking the cows with his 19-year-old brother, Brian, carrying the milking equipment on his shoulder as he moved from cow to cow, hooking them into a pipe that fed their milk into the storage tank.
“This is my gym,” Deome said.
It’s really more than that. It’s his gym, his office, his land and his future. Most of Deome’s high school classmates have gone on to jobs in which they sit in confined spaces all day, following the orders of their bosses. Here, Deome is in charge. He decides which bull to breed with which cow. He decides when it’s time for a cow to be put down.
On the family’s previous farm in Pennsylvania, a cow that was a particular favorite of Matt Deome’s sister, Emma Deome, had gone down last month. They wanted to give the cow a chance, but it looked grim. Finally, on the 14th day, Chuck Deome went out to the pasture with his gun, only to find that she had finally gotten up and was grazing contentedly.
The cow was now in the barn, awaiting her milking.
These dramas, and the frequent opportunity to exercise one’s own free will, fill the lives of the Deomes. They love the life so much, they’re preparing to take second jobs to subsidize the farm’s expenses.
But the Deomes and their dairy farming colleagues aren’t the only ones dipping into their pockets to prop up Vermont’s agricultural economy.
We all are.
For decades, the number of dairy farms, and the number of dairy cows, has been in a state of decline. About 50 years ago, there were 252,000 dairy cows in Vermont. In 2016, there are 132,000, according to state estimates.
Troubled by this trend, the government and a whole raft of industry and non-profit organizations have sought to keep the dairy farmer in business by pumping increasing amounts of resources into individual farms.
In 2008, when Craig and Joan Wortman took over the Green Acres Farm from Joan Wortman’s mother, Ruth Shumway, they were the beneficiaries of one such program. The Wortmans agreed to install a 300,000 gallon concrete manure pit to prevent agricultural runoff from spoiling the local waterways; though the sticker price of the pit was well over $200,000, Joan Wortman said she only had to pay about $160,000, with a government grant covering the rest.
Wortman said the farm’s finances would have been better had she not had to build the pit in the first place.
“It’s getting so that the state is slowly going to drive out these small agricultural practices with all their regulations. ... They’re really right on you,” she said. “If we hadn’t put this manure pit in, we would have gotten nailed terrible.”
The transition from Wortman to Deome, aided by another kind of subsidy, almost didn’t happen.
Deome’s initial attempt to purchase the land was stymied because his application for a loan from the Farm Service Agency was rejected, but Jon Ramsay, who oversees the Vermont Land Trust’s Farmland Access Program and who worked with the families to make the sale happen, said Deome has a high chance of seeing the loan approved next year, now that he’s committed to the project by moving into the state.
In the meantime, the Deomes and Wortmans have worked out a leasing arrangement.
No one knows exactly how much money goes to subsidizing the dairy industry, but the federal government does keep records of how much Vermont’s farms receive in direct payments from federal programs, such as the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Farmable Wetlands Program and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
The numbers show that the amount of taxpayer money going into Vermont farms is soaring.
According to the USDA Agricultural Census, in 1997, federal government payments to Vermont farms totaled $3.2 million. By 2007, that number had more than doubled, to $6.7 million. By 2012, the most recent year tracked, the number had more than doubled again, to $13.9 million.
Those numbers don’t include state or federal dollars that support farms indirectly, as with USDA staff.
Other groups that spend resources to help dairy farmers include the University of Vermont’s Family Farm Succession Program, DairyVision Vermont, The American Farmland Trust, Land for Good, Third Sector New England, the Intervale Center and New England Dairy Promotion Board, an industry group that seeks to secure the place of the dairy farmer by, in part, encouraging children to eat a healthy diet that includes low-fat and fat-free dairy foods.
These groups provide other resources, like market studies, or technical support to guide farmers through regulations and insurance purchases.
“Vermont is a pretty progressive place in terms of having organizations on the ground ready and willing to help with these issues,” Ramsay said.
But despite all these resources, a study released earlier this year from Land for Good and the American Farmland Trust found that much more help is needed.
The study recommended that more services be extended to older farmers, more studies be conducted, more regulations be passed that would encourage young people to take up the call of farming, more money be spent on easements, and that a new incentive program be established that would encourage farmers to plan for succession.
No one suggests that central Vermont’s small dairy farmers are needed to produce milk. Milk can be produced more efficiently, and cheaply, by larger dairy operations in parts of the country that have more wide-open spaces, and fewer harsh winters.
No, these groups aren’t subsidizing milk.
Milk is a product. Dairy farming is a way of life.
If the Vermont dairy farmer was not supported, and left at the mercy of the free market, Ramsay said, the consequences would be severe for individuals like the Deomes, who run small farms.
“I think you would see a significant loss of operations,” he said.
Other experts agree.
“Ultimately, what would happen is, there would be fewer dairy farms and the dairy production would move to places where there is economy of scale. They wouldn’t consolidate. They would be lost,” said Andrew Marshall, education and field director for Land for Good.
The milk would continue to flow from elsewhere, but Central Vermont, with its small, geographically isolated hill farms, would soon be barren of dairy cows.
Gary Keough, the USDA’s state statistician, said dairy would be more likely to survive in Northern Vermont, where operations of several thousands of cows take advantage of the wide-open spaces of the Champlain Valley.
Because farmers are continually improving their ability to get more milk per cow, there would be little difference in the supermarket.
“You have one less dairy farmer,” he said. “You have fewer dairy farms but the number of cows remains relatively steady or continuing slight decline. But milk production is continuing to increase.”
Because the experts and lawmakers understand that the country’s milk supply is not dependent on the small Vermont dairy farmer, Marshall said, people often suggest doing away with the subsidy programs altogether, and allowing the free market to winnow out those who are operating on the margin of the system.
“It’s a legitimate question. It’s a question that’s been asked for a long time,” Marshall said. “As a person who works in farming and an advocate for it, I would say that’s a somewhat narrow perspective. The dairy landscape occupies about 80 percent of what is commonly understood as the agricultural landscape in Vermont. It’s not only an enormously important economic factor, but it’s also important for less tangible reasons — the agricultural, rural lifestyle.”
Ramsay said the roots of the rationale for saving Vermont’s dairy farmer from extinction are sentimental.
“Vermonters care about seeing a working landscape,” he said. “There’s something that a lot of people have expressed interest in and say is important to them.”
Indeed, few uses of taxpayer dollars draw as much support as the dairy industry.
A 2014 survey by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture found that 97 percent of Vermonters say dairy farms are important to the state, and 85 percent are willing to pay a little more to ensure their dairy products are sourced from Vermont.
Joan Wortman said dairy farms are a big part of what makes Vermont a state worth living in, and visiting.
“What’s the one draw for Vermont?” she asked. “It’s the small family farms dotting the landscape.”
If Wortman is correct, then the same dairy barn where the farmer makes life-and-death decisions based on a calculus of practicality and sentimentality, is itself dependent on a similar calculus being performed by the American public.
And the public’s propensity for sentimentality toward Vermont’s agricultural roots are a major component of the state’s tourism industry, which is responsible for $2.49 billion in annual spending by visitors, and about 30,000 jobs statewide.
The most valuable product of the dairy farm may not be cows, or milk, but warm feelings.
With wild fluctuations in milk prices, and large numbers of older dairy farmers likely to exit the industry in a way that could allow their farmland to be developed, many groups are working to ensure that Vermont’s pastoral hillsides will be preserved, forever.
The Vermont Land Trust helped to ensure that the Wortman farm would survive the Wortmans’ exit from the dairy industry by playing matchmaker between the Wortmans and the Deomes.
But the land trust’s Farmland Access Program also used funds from a grant by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to purchase an agricultural conservation easement on the property for $100,000, which brought the $330,000 price down for the Deomes, and ensured that the land will continue to be used for agricultural purposes, forever.
Chuck Deome said that every time a farmer leaves the industry, there’s a simple, logical reason to sell the land to a developer — money.
The $330,000 that the Wortmans received for their 90-acre farm is less than twice the $200,000 average sale price of a home.
Standing outside the cattle barn, Chuck Deome gestured at the upper pastures.
“There’s space up there for 14 house lots,” he said, commenting on the sticker price. “Think of what it could have been.”
This is hardly the only dairy farm that the land trust has moved to preserve.
In fiscal year 2015 alone, it conserved more than 12,000 acres, including 19 dairy farms.
That’s a fairly typical year — since 2009, the land trust has conserved more than 132 dairy farms — this when there are only 868 dairy farms total in the state.
Ramsay says the land trust will play a major role in preserving Vermont’s landscapes and views. Vermont’s total land area is about 6 million acres, of which the land trust has conserved 556,699 acres, or 9 percent.
By preserving the small dairy farmer, the public is also preserving the ability of a farmer to be a little sentimental when weighing the life of an individual animal, Marshall said.
While large operations can and do take on managers who treat the animals well, he said, “in a smaller operation, when you’re dealing with smaller animals, it’s easier to have those sort of personal relationships with the animals.”
And just as the public’s investment in local agriculture can be a life preserver for a small farming operation, it can also be a life preserver for an individual cow.
On May 14, a sorrowful Joan Wortman said that Dolly, the willful herd matriarch who was also her favorite cow, would be sent to the slaughterhouse to make way for the Deome’s incoming herd of Holsteins and Jerseys.
But when the meat truck next passed through the region, it left without Dolly on board.
“The first couple days, she was a little confused,” said Matt Deome, a few minutes before unleashing Dolly, and the rest of the cows, on the day’s pasture. “We told Joan, they can keep her here for as long as they want.”
Deome said that Dolly wasn’t the leader of his herd, as she was with her shorthorn brethren, but she did know exactly where to go, which was helpful in giving the sometimes-directionless herd a sense of purpose.
Deome, his brother, and his father unlocked all the cows, whistling and calling to them to back out of their stalls, and walk the guided path toward the lower pasture.
Dolly was in the middle of the pack, but after the herd filtered into the lower pasture, she kept going, a gray cow beelining across the picturesque brook, headed to the upper pasture, where she could spend the day munching green grass beneath a blue sky. Freedom.
Deome watched her for a moment, offering only a simple comment before returning his attention to the rest of the herd.
“That’s how it should be for a cow.”
Follow this series online at www.vnews.com/dairy.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.