Those of us who love New England, love it for its wild woods and mountains, unharnessed waters and quiet lakes, as well as for the lush, green, open spaces hiding among them. What often goes unnoticed is the care and nurturing that these open spaces in our beloved landscape require – care that is very often provided by a local dairy farm family.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annie Watson is co-owner of Sheepscot Valley Farm in Whitefield, where she lives with her husband, Mike Moody, and three sons. A farmer-member of Organic Valley, Watson serves on the boards of both the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners and the Maine Dairy Industry associations; is CEO and a founding partner of the Maine Organic Milk Co., and served on the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center USDA-convened task force.
Family dairy farms are the backbone of our rural communities. They maintain crucial landscapes and protect natural resources, and they are economic engines for their communities, creating jobs on the farm and for the related agricultural businesses.
This past year, news gripped the region as 135 small organic dairy farms are scheduled to lose their organic milk contracts. The path for them to secure an income for their labor, land and animals is time-stamped with an end date.
This is just the most recent tragedy. For years, our region has been losing dairy farms.
I believe it’s more than an issue of short-term market conditions but part of a much larger question of New England’s resiliency.
Some might conclude that this is just an expected casualty with changes in dairy consumption, but the reality is that dairy consumption in the U.S. is up year over year. While the population drinks less fluid milk, Americans love our cheese, ice cream, yogurt and butter. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, last year the average American consumed 655 pounds of dairy: an increase of 3 pounds per person over the previous year.
So, if people still want real dairy, then what‘s the issue? The answer is both complicated and straightforward.
We have a U.S. dairy industry that has prioritized inexpensive milk over everything: over regional independence, over environmental sustainability, over responsible government subsidies, over understandable pricing, over local buying options. Over everything.
This mindset has led to the industrialization of dairy. This industrialization means largely unrecognizable farms, with massive operations of 5,000 to 10,000 cows. This is not the dairy of New England but industrial dairy that ships milk into our region from as far away as Texas and Colorado.
The reality of dairy in New England is not about winning a low-cost-goods race to the bottom. It is about ensuring our region has economic resilience and independence as climate change persists and worrisome consolidation forces press our national agenda.
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed us all to the fragility of our nation’s food system.
We cannot be dependent on faraway industrial dairy.
It matters where your dairy comes from. It matters that our dairy farms are supported in our communities, as their trust and knowledge of the land in New England are irreplaceable. The beloved fields of New England will not stay this way if we do nothing.
The challenge facing 135 dairy farms has brought together dozens of farmers, co-ops, nonprofits, academics and government officials to concentrate on building a better dairy future through investment and policy mechanisms.
In November, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack convened the task force group through the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center to offer ideas on how to support these Northeastern dairy farmers. This task force has taken the opportunity to lay the markers for making a more robust dairy economy for organic and non-organic dairy farms alike.
For example, let’s invest $50 million to leverage dairy manufacturing in the region to process and sell more local milk.
Let’s change government policy to enable institutional buying choice in sourcing organic and local dairy for schools and public institutions.
Let’s use resources to stabilize supply chain problems in transportation and help recruit and retain the necessary drivers our industry depends on.
Now is a time to reinvigorate investments in dairy. New England can bring healthy dairy to millions of people on the Eastern Seaboard, but we need the investment in the infrastructure and people, to ensure we are a resilient and responsive region for a collective future.
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This content was originally published here.