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Jim Kenyon: Norwich Dairy Deal Sours

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Josh Swift drives past the empty red cow barns and rolling green pastures on Turnpike Road in Norwich every morning, and can’t help but wonder what might have been.

“It’s hard, but I don’t have the stress anymore,” he said. “I’d still love to be milking, but I never had a month where I broke even.”

Until recently Swift, 28, was living his dream — or so he thought. He grew up in Norwich in a farming family. As a kid, he raised and trained oxen to show at summer fairs. Eighteen months ago, the dairy farm where he had once worked as a hired hand became his to run.

Andy Sigler, the retired CEO of Champion International, a leading U.S. maker of paper products, started the farm after moving to Norwich with his wife, Peg, in 1996.

In early 2015, Sigler gave the 10-acre farm, currently assessed at $2.4 million, to Vermont Technical College in Randolph. He also donated an adjoining 350 acres, most of which was forest land, that VTC sold to the Upper Valley Land Trust for $300,000.

The farm was to be used as a laboratory of sorts for VTC’s 40 agriculture students, including a dozen who could live on the premises. The school brought in a recent VTC graduate to manage a 40-cow herd that had previously been part of the school’s farming operation in Randolph. But the arrangement didn’t work out.

Enter Swift, who at the time had a property maintenance business and was farming with his dad. In November 2015, Swift signed a lease agreement with VTC. He provided the cows and cared for them.

Swift, his wife, Barbara, and their two children moved into a mobile home on the premises. In lieu of rent, Swift mowed the lawns and plowed the roads around the farm.

With the price that dairy farmers received for milk reaching a near-record high in 2014, Swift felt good about his prospects. He bought more cows, increasing his herd to 80.

Last year, Chris Gray and Laura Brown, a couple from West Pawlet, Vt., with experience in running a creamery, became the third leg of the public-private partnership stool. A federal grant helped set up a state-of-the-art $750,000 creamery adjacent to the main barn. The arrangement called for Swift to sell some of his milk to Norwich Farm Creamery, which would use it to make dairy products, including cheese and yogurt. Gray and Brown signed a five-year lease agreement with VTC that calls for them to work with students in the farm’s “dairy lab.”

But things soured fairly quickly.

Milk prices plunged. “There’s too much milk in the marketplace,” said former New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor, of Meriden. “It’s hitting everybody.”

Swift was dealing with a double whammy. At the farm, even when taking into account the Upper Valley Land Trust property, hay fields and grazing pastures are in short supply. Swift was spending $8,000 a month on feed that had to be trucked in.

By this spring, Swift had rung up nearly $38,000 in unpaid farming bills. He owed Poulin Grain, of Newport, Vt., more than $10,000.

Earlier this month, with the assistance of a mediator, Swift and VTC parted ways. From looking through VTC records, which are public information, it appears the relationship among VTC, Swift and Norwich Farm Creamery has been on the rocks for a while.

No one is talking much, so I’m not sure who failed to keep up their end of the bargain — if anyone did. “The mutual agreement to not renew the lease (set to expire June 30) was to everyone’s benefit,” said VTC President Patricia Moulton.

Moulton, who took over only last fall, wasn’t around when the original deal with Swift was struck. To its credit, VTC made sure that Swift didn’t take the financial hit alone. “It’s a difficult time in the dairy business in Vermont, particularly for smaller farmers,” Moulton said. “We wanted to help Josh get started in a new direction and this was the best way to do it.”

According to the settlement agreement, reached May 2, VTC will pay Swift’s outstanding debts of $38,214 and is forgiving $2,500 in unpaid utility bills. He’s also receiving a one-time payment of $10,000, and being allowed to keep $6,000 in proceeds from the sale of a tractor.

VTC was “good to me,” Swift told me. “They made it right, so my family could move ahead smoothly.”

By my math, Swift’s settlement package comes to nearly $60,000. Vermont taxpayers are footing the bill, but I can think of worse uses of public dollars than helping bail out a young farmer. After selling off most of his Holstein herd, Swift is getting back into the property maintenance business, with his wife’s help. The couple is building a three-bedroom house a half-mile from the farm.

Norwich Farm Creamery is buying milk from Spring Brook Farm in Reading, Vt. Gray and Brown are selling cheese, yogurt and milk at Upper Valley farmers markets, along with Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich.

In an email, Gray wrote that they’re looking forward to the “return of milk production here at the farm.” But when I talked with Moulton on Monday, she was noncommittal.

“It’s still in the air a bit,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out the right combination.”

Taylor said finding someone to replace Swift won’t be easy. Dairy farming isn’t exactly a growth industry.

“For a young person starting out, it’s incredibly daunting,” he said, adding that more farmers are taking second jobs and using the equity in their property to scrape by.

“They’ve got cow in their blood,” Taylor said. “They just keep going and hope it will get better the next year.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.