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Vermont Creamery’s advice to dairy farmers: Switch from cows to goats

  • Kids frolic in a pen at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph. Vermont Creamery says it needs more farms to produce goat milk. File photo by Katie Jickling/VTDigger

  • Miles Hooper, owner of Ayers Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph, talks to dairy farmers about switching from cows to goats at the state Agency of Agriculture’s Northern Tier dairy conference Tuesday. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

  • Shawn Gingue, a dairy farmer from Waterford. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Published: 4/6/2019 10:23:28 PM
Modified: 4/6/2019 10:23:29 PM

Dairy farmer Shawn Gingue of Waterford, Vt., and his family reached a breaking point with their business around 2015.

The family had farmed for generations and wanted to continue. But they were losing money, Gingue told farmers and others gathered for a seminar on diversifying last week at the Northern Tier Dairy Summit.

“Basically it came down to we really wanted to farm, but the numbers were telling us ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Gingue said. “And if you just persevere and say no, ‘I want to milk,’ we probably would have lost the farm in the end.”

So Gingue, who had farmed with his father, grandfather and brother, reluctantly sold the milking cows and looked at other ways to use the barn and 550 acres of land that the family owns and leases.

Gingue started talking to other farmers. He attended a University of Vermont grain conference, and his wife started a Facebook page for the farm. He started growing hay and marketed it on Craigslist.

Now the family is using the barn to raise 400 heifers for a farmer in Bradford, Vt., growing barley for a malt company, running a store and a pumpkin festival, and contracting out seeding services using a seeder purchased several years ago. Gingue also mixes calf manure with wood chips and sells it as compost.

“Once we sold the milk cows, it kind of makes you think outside the box,” Gingue said. “Even if you are 100 percent dairy, there’s a lot of people looking for stuff we produce on the farm. If you don’t try it, you’re never going to know.”

The dairy summit April 1 and 2 was the work of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. The event focused on strategies to help farmers as they face a fifth year of low dairy prices and other economic problems, like a labor shortage, tariff uncertainty and stiff global competition.

State agriculture officials said 10% of Vermont’s dairy farms closed last year.

Vermont Creamery encouraged those in the diversification seminar group to switch to goats. The cheese company has more than 100 employees and a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Websterville, Vt., and it makes about 4.8 million pounds of cheese each year, about half of that goat cheese, its president, Adeline Druart, told the farmers. Land O’Lakes bought Vermont Creamery two years ago, providing an opportunity to expand.

“Our biggest challenge is there’s not enough goat milk,” Druart said. The company buys 16 million pounds of goat milk a year from farmers in Vermont, Ontario and Quebec, she said. It needs 10 million more pounds.

“How do we go back and accelerate the perception of goats within the cow dairy industry?” she asked.

Randolph goat farmer Miles Hooper, who produces milk for Vermont Creamery with a herd of about 400, said goat farming makes his family enough money to pay competitive wages.

“You can set up a goat dairy operation with a fraction of the cash outlay that it takes to set up a cow dairy,” he said. “I lease one new tractor and own one skid steer. You don’t have to be encumbered by really complicated systems.”

Cannabis, a plant with an array of uses, has also gained prominence as an alternative crop for dairy farmers looking for supplemental income. The ag agency has estimated there was about 2,000 acres of land registered — as required — this year for cultivation of hemp, the strain of cannabis with lower concentrations of THC, the chemical that makes people high.

Farmer Joe Pimentel, who grows hemp on his farm in Stockbridge, Vt., cautioned would-be hemp farmers to start small. While the plant is valuable, mistakes can be costly. Pimentel said he left half of his crop in the field last year because he waited too long to harvest and mold took over.

“If you are thinking about growing hemp, the first thing is, ‘Who is your buyer?’ ” he said. “I know tons of farmers sitting on 13,000 tons of biomass in their barns right now that nobody will buy because Vermont doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to process that sort of biomass.”

Goat farming drew the most interest from the farmers who were present. They asked Hooper detailed questions about the animals and the costs of production. Laurie Livingstone, a farmer in South Woodstock, said she and her husband, ages 61 and 62 respectively, are struggling to keep up with their 60-cow farm but find the idea of a new path daunting.

“We’re both in good shape physically, but we can’t get quite as much done as we used to,” said Livingstone, who works off the farm as a small-animal veterinarian. Her husband does almost all the milking, she said.

“My husband works over 100 hours a week,” she said. The couple’s grown sons aren’t interested in farming. “He has not had more than two days off since 2014. These are not things we are proud of. It’s not sustainable long-term, I don’t think.”

Diversifying means taking risks and becoming a marketer, Gingue said. He tried growing 60 acres of soybeans and just broke even on them. To his surprise, the farm’s Facebook page attracted 3,600 followers, and he sold all his compost through Facebook and local networking.

“It’s allowed us to connect with people locally and all over the world, really,” he said.

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