Enduring the American Dairy Crisis
Seth Leach wakes up at 3am to milk the cows. A typical day’s work on the farm is about fourteen hours, and dairy cows need to be milked at least every twelve. For Seth to call it quits before dusk, his days start well before dawn. Before his employees arrive, Seth plans out the day’s fieldwork and makes his rounds through the barn: attaching tentacle-like milking machines to teats, shoveling manure, restocking feed, and seeing if any of his 120 cows need antibiotics — to prevent that, he works hard to keep their barn clean, dry, and safe. “The best days here on the farm are the days when everybody’s healthy,” said Seth.
When I first met Seth, he had just slept in. He was tending to his own health — his mental health — after another tough week. A light summer drizzle fell on a humid Sunday morning as I pulled my car into his driveway. Red, weathered, wooden barns surrounded my vehicle on every side. Craning my neck forward in the drivers’ seat, I spotted a row of black and white cows standing sheltered in their stalls. Their heads poked through metal bars, hovered over piles of hay. The pungent smell of manure filled my nostrils as I stepped out of my car to the wet, gray sky; the valley’s dewy fields and lush, forested mountains sweetened the air. Seth called for me from the side-door of his white, paint-chipped, two-story home — the one he grew up in. He was barefoot, wearing red flannel pajama bottoms, wielding a large mug of coffee. His tall, broad stature barely fit in the doorframe.
Seth Leach is a seventh-generation dairy farmer in the agricultural hamlet of Pawlet, Vermont. Growing up, he always knew he would become a dairy farmer. Driven by his passion for cows, along with the pressure to carry on a long lineage of dairy farmers, Seth threw himself into the cutthroat world of dairy farming at a young age. After graduating college in 2003 with a major in animal science, and a minor in small business, he returned home ready to take over the family business from his father. Now approaching his forties, Seth clings to the 300-acre dairy farm that’s been in his family for centuries.
Over the last decade, the United States has lost upwards of 17,000 dairy farms — a decline of about 30 percent. In Vermont, the U.S. state most dependent upon a single commodity, milk, a steady loss of dairy farms is particularly striking. Dairy farms characterize Vermont’s proud agricultural history. In the 1940s, over 11,000 dairies dotted the state’s picturesque rural landscapes. By the late 1980s, that number dropped to about 3,000. Today, there are barely over 700.¹
It doesn’t take an economist to understand why dairy farms in Vermont and throughout the U.S. are tanking: supply greatly exceeds demand, and an overwhelming surplus of milk results in all-time low prices for dairy farmers.¹ An over-supply may seem confounding as the number of dairy farms plummets, but most which prevail are becoming increasingly large. To compensate for low prices, farm owners around the country are cramming more cows into bigger barns to boost efficiency and maximize milk production. Meanwhile, it is virtually inevitable that smaller-scale farmers — the vulnerable majority — face insurmountable debts, sell away their herds, and shut down their farms.
In recent years, responses to this economic plight have been grim. Upon losing their livelihoods, many American dairy farmers have turned to taking their own lives. In Wisconsin, another major dairy farming state, dairy farmer suicide rates have been particularly alarming. In Vermont, in early 2018, suicide prevention hotlines accompanied the meager checks farm owners received in the mail.
Of course, the plight of small-scale agriculturalists is not unique to the American dairy industry. In India, for example, inescapable debt on small farms is the primary link to an estimated 16,000 farmer suicides every year.² Just like American dairy farmers, the debts Indian farmers face are largely attributable to the advancement of our increasingly globalized food system. In India, the U.S., and all over the world, unfettered free-trade policies driven by neoliberal agendas facilitate the primacy of high input, high output ‘factory’ farms, leaving countless small-farm owners stuck hopeless.
As the vast majority of the world’s farms are small-scale, their decline entails a profound loss of diversity throughout agricultural milieus.³ Pertaining specifically to the American dairy crisis, an increasingly consolidated industry of monolithic mega-farms erodes multiple dimensions of diversity in dairy farming spheres. This includes losses in biodiversity across ecosystems via rampant water, soil, and air pollution; a dramatic loss in diversity of cow breeds; and, the crux — the loss of an invaluable diversity of thought among farm owners.
Each of the dairy farmers I spoke with in southern Vermont — all but one of whom were small-scale — had different farm models involving various different approaches to various different problems: a diversity which upholds their community’s vibrancy, versatility, and resilience. However, the homogenization of the dairy industry has fostered the dominance of a “get big or get out” attitude among dairy farmers throughout the U.S.— an attitude which maintains the status quo, and threatens the future of dairy farming communities throughout the nation.
While big farms keep getting bigger, and more and more farm owners lose their livelihoods, the dairy crisis is simultaneously a crisis of environmental degradation, animal welfare, and human rights. Along with atrocious environmental externalities and the perpetual confinement of mass populations of dairy cows, the unjust exploitation of Latinx migrant laborers goes widely unrecognized in the scope of the American dairy crisis.
Extant books and media have analyzed the broken system which does violence to dairy farm owners, laborers, cows, and the environment; however, a more comprehensive story centering dairy farm owner perceptions of the crisis is absent. In addition to the insights of my interviewees, I will consider the recent meetings held by industry leaders, as well as the state-issued policies geared towards fixing the crisis thus far.
Each dairy farm owner I met with demonstrated their own particular knacks for adaptation. But each of whom also illuminated the troubling lack of consensus among both industry leaders and farm owners throughout the U.S. to support systemic changes that could redress the crisis.
An Economy of Scale
As the drizzle grew stronger, Seth Leach welcomed me inside his old, wooden home and led us to a room he called his office. Between sips of coffee, he explained how, traditionally, the commodity milk market works cyclically. It usually has a couple of low years, then maybe an average year, and then bounces back with two or three years of good prices — sufficient for most farm owners to stay in business. But dairy farmers today are stuck in an unusually low rut for the fifth year in a row. In Vermont, the average milk price in 2014 was about $23 per-hundred-pounds of milk produced (hundred-weight).¹ Since 2015, average milk prices have hovered around $16 per hundred-weight.¹ Meanwhile, operating costs for things like feed — averaging in Vermont at $21 per hundred-weight of milk produced — soar above returns, and interest rates on annual loans for these costs have increased significantly.¹ Making matters worse, sustained low milk prices devalue dairy cows and other assets dairy farmers could otherwise rely on for collateral at the bank to buffer their losses.
The Trump administration’s trade war with China digs an even deeper rut for American dairy farmers. Farm-owners throughout the nation — especially in Vermont, where nearly 80% of all milk is exported out of the state¹ — once saw hope in avenues for fluid milk, dried whey, and cheese sales to China, a major buyer of U.S. farm goods which imported $9.2 billion worth of agricultural products from the U.S. in 2018 alone. But in early 2019, Trump initiated and has since increased U.S. tariffs on exports to China, which has imposed retaliatory tariffs of its own.
Unfortunately, for American dairy farmers, the trade war deepens the glut of milk and dairy products, and drives milk prices down even lower.¹
Initiated in 2014 and amended in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, a federal insurance program called the Margin Protection Program (MPP) was designed to help dairy farmers suffering from low prices. Farmers who enroll in the Program receive monthly payments when the margin between milk prices and feed-costs dips below the coverage they choose when they sign up for the Program. But the MPP cannot guarantee a farm’s survival, and it does not address the underlying issue of over-supply.
In a video released by United States Senator Bernie Sanders’ office in September 2018, an outreach representative for Sanders emphasized that dairy farmers in Vermont and throughout the U.S. could benefit from a federal adoption of Canada’s commodity milk market model. Initiating a Canadian-style quota mechanism — in which dairy farmers purchase quotas to ensure that they don’t collectively over-produce milk — could help fix the over-supply. (Seth Leach appeared in this same video, expressing his unequivocal support for this mechanism).
At the time, conversations about supply management were already underway in the Vermont State House.¹ By the end of the 2018 Legislative Session, a ‘Growth Management Plan’ was created, encapsulating the core goal of equalizing supply and demand by stabilizing the price and volume of milk. The Plan aims to bring an economic boon to places throughout the U.S. that are reliant upon the prosperity of dairy farms — namely Vermont, where dairy farms are the crumbling backbone to the state’s low-income rural communities.
In order for the Plan to work, however, it must be enacted at the federal level.
Creators of the Plan suggest that regional or state-wide implementations are viable, but that neither would be very impactful. Because nearly all U.S. dairy farmers are directly linked to supply-chains that are inextricable from the global marketplace, managing milk volumes in any one particular region alone would not significantly reduce price volatility.¹
But Seth Leach told me that, frankly, any hope for the endorsement of supply-management among national industry leaders would be naïve. He explained how the American dairy industry is nothing short of corrupt — starting with today’s major dairy cooperatives.
Dairy cooperatives — co-ops, for short — are the entities that link dairy farmers to commodity supply-chains. Co-ops offer a range of services for their member farms; from hauling, aggregating, processing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing milk and dairy products to regional grocery retailers, to organizing access to international export routes. The vast majority of milk produced in the U.S. goes to co-ops that have their own processing and manufacturing plants. To draw profits, these co-ops need their facilities to run at maximum capacity. This means that, even in times of surplus, co-ops are inclined to promote a constant flow of milk to remain cost-effective.
Co-ops began in the 1800s as farmer-owned and operated businesses. They were originally designed to allocate all profits back to farmers, proportional to the volume of milk each farm produces; however, the rampant consolidation and centralization of co-ops in recent decades has complicated the redistribution of profits in the industry. As it is now normal for multiple co-ops to operate under increasingly large ‘umbrella’ co-ops, profits from dairy sales now also go to the pockets of CEOs, ‘Big-dairy’ lobbyists, and corporate investors, all while farm owners receive measly returns. Albeit still ‘farmer-owned’, co-ops are no longer solely farmer-operated, nor entirely farmer-interested.
Agri-Mark is the name of a prominent co-op for dairy farmers in Vermont and New England. Despite ambiguities in the functions of major dairy co-ops throughout the U.S. today, Agri-Mark holds true to its foundational mission of getting 100% of its profits back to the farmers. Yet, at one point in our conversation, Seth Leach gestured to his blue Agri-Mark t-shirt, printed with a ‘Cabot’ cheese logo — a brand any cheese eater in the Northeast U.S. would recognize. Seth said he was a proud producer of Cabot cheese, but he acknowledged the irony of his wardrobe choice all the same.
“I feel really critical of the things that Agri-Mark as a co-operative has done,” Seth said, “I watch them not operating in our best interest.” He explained his frustration in how Agri-Mark’s board of directors keep expanding the co-op’s facilities, and encouraging its member farms to scale-up alongside them, in effect perpetuating the surplus, and sustaining low prices.
But Seth’s criticism is not very popular among his cohort. “When I call bullshit on that, there’s a large population of my contemporaries that don’t agree with me,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, if you don’t like what Agri-Mark is doing, then go somewhere else’.”
Another dairy-farm owner I spoke with, Mark Lourie, is a proud member of Agri-Mark co-op. Mark is a short, stocky man, a bit older than Seth Leach. He and his identical twin brother, Mike, are third-generation dairy farmers in Rupert, Vermont — a twenty-minute drive over the mountain pass from Seth’s farm. At just under 700 cows, the Lourie twins’ operation is one of the largest in the area. After graduating college, Mark and Mike took over their family business in 1995 with 150 cows. Since then, they’ve had to expand their operation and grow their herd size, requiring that they keep their cows in their stalls for their entire lives — a model now commonplace in the industry.
“We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s a catch-22…”
I could tell Mark sensed my uneasiness about his cows’ confinement, as he was quick to assure me of their comfort. “They’re happy. They got a dry place to lay down. They get milked three times a day. They get all the food they want,” he said, adding that he and Mike recently upgraded their barn to have a more spacious layout for their herd. “They’re pampered pretty well. You and I can walk in there and say, man, this feels pretty good.”
Mark had nothing bad to say about Agri-Mark co-op, but he did bemoan the dairy farmer dilemma: “We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s a catch-22. We’re all in a position where the price is low, and the only way to make up for low prices is to make more milk,” he said. Fortunately, for the Lourie twins, they’ve had access to the land-base, infrastructure, and equipment necessary to expand, and maximize their milk production — following the route most dairy farmers see as the only conceivable way to keep their farms. That is, as long as supply management remains absent. But Mark told me that some farm owners actually embrace the lack of control on supply. According to Mark, when considering a ‘Canadian-style’ supply management mechanism, “There’s a lot of dairy farmers that say, ‘You know what, that’s not the American way. The American way is the survival of the fittest’.”
This particular sort of right-neoliberal, nationalist infused mindset among American dairy farmers is not ubiquitous; news articles written about and by dairy farmers throughout the country cite sentiments strongly in favor of supply management. Mark Lourie’s insight merely highlights a discrepancy between his peers.
“‘…that’s not the American way. The American way is the survival of the fittest’.”
Seth Leach corroborated Mark’s insight: “There’s this unapologetic, unabashed feeling that it’s a right to just continue to rapidly expand,” Seth said, “when that’s clearly not what the industry needs.”
Seth and Mark are among those who want supply management. However, “a lot” of American dairy farmers have no interest in cutting back on supply — certainly not on their own farms.
“We continue to lose more farms, but the big farms keep getting bigger. Bigger, and hopefully more efficient,” said Mark Lourie. “It’s the economy of scale.” This trend Mark alludes to is called attrition: the reduced resilience of smaller-scaled farms while larger operations can decrease their debt per cow, and hold a bottom-line high enough to stay in business despite low prices. Of Vermont’s approximately 700 remaining dairy farms, about 650 of them are small-scale — housing 200 cows or less. While that number steadily drops, the number of the state’s medium- and large-scale dairy farms — housing 200–700, and 700-plus cows, respectively — has steadily increased.¹
Mark Lourie told me first-hand that he and Mike plan to continue their expansion by raising more cows, and by purchasing land from smaller, neighboring farms which they expect to fail within the next few years.
As larger farms now overshadow the small, the ‘American way’ pervades Vermont’s dairy sector. And although Vermont’s small-scale dairy farms are the vulnerable majority in-state, Seth Leach said he believes that even Vermont’s biggest dairy farms, with upwards of several-thousand cows, are still vulnerable to collapse. This is partly because Vermont dairy farmers are in direct competition with dairy farmers in other states. “There are guys that are milking 10,000 cows in places like Idaho, who in five years want to be milking 100,000; in 10 years, they want to be milking a million,” said Seth, adding that even these operations compete with mega-farms around the globe.
As most international trade routes are only accessible to the largest producers belonging to the largest co-ops, an export-focused, globalized market only exacerbates the vulnerability of small and mid-scale farms. Recognizing this, Seth knew that, at his scale, surviving by striving to expand would be futile.
But from his point of view, ‘survival of the fittest’ does not necessarily mean survival of the biggest. By instead reducing his herd size and making less milk, Seth is confident that he will stay afloat. “It blows my mind,” said Seth, “how farmers would sooner milk more cows, pack their facilities full, and buy more feed than make it work with a few less cows and a lot less grain.”
“There’s a certain population of small dairy farmers that I don’t feel bad for.”
“It’s a big ole’ math equation,” he continued, walking me through the details and expenses of his operation. Next to labor costs, feed prices are the largest operating finance dairy farmers deal with. Small-farm owners typically rely on imported feed — mostly corn and other grains that are mass cultivated elsewhere — to make up the majority of their cows’ diets. As the price of feed is significantly higher when imported, Seth decided to increase the portion of his cows’ food grown on his own property. Small-scale dairy farmers typically grow at least some of their feed on their own land, but since Seth’s mostly hilly land-base limits him to growing enough feed for just over 100 cows, the only way he could manage to buy less grain was to sell away nearly half of his herd.
Seth said he was initially scrutinized by dairy farmers in his community — including his own father — for shrinking his herd size. They baulked at the notion of losing revenue by losing cows and subsequent milk sales. These doubts were squashed, however, when significant savings from reduced feed costs began rewarding Seth with net gains. With less cows, Seth also saw the opportunity to focus on revitalizing the pasture lands in the hills above the barns. Now, Seth’s herd grazes those grassy hills. Weather permitting, they can go outside and feed themselves — for free.
“There’s no more economical or healthy way for dairy cows to live than on the pasture…and it’s really where they were intended to be,” said Seth. “They’re the most important thing, in the end of it all.”
Evolutionarily, cows developed as free-roaming, grass-eating animals. Their domestication by humans — and now mass confinement and commercialization — has significantly reduced their longevity. As most dairy cows today are perpetually confined, gorged with synthetically treated grains for the sole purpose of maximizing milk production, and often over-treated with antibiotics to compensate for inadequate living conditions, the average dairy cow lives naturally between four and six years — if not slaughtered sooner for health problems resulting from these factors. Predating the modern industry, their natural lifespan averaged between 15 and 20 years.
The gradual narrowing of dairy cows’ collective gene pool accelerates their morbidity and mortality rates. Since the mid-20th century, particularly in the United States, aggressive selection for higher milk yields via artificial insemination has created a dramatically inbred population. This genetic homogeneity increases dairy cows’ likelihood of inheriting potentially life-threatening disorders, and further reduces their ability to evolve in the face of a rapidly changing environment — further constraining them to their stalls.
While researches are currently seeking ways to restore diversity in dairy cow populations and support their collective resilience, farm owners can promote the health and longevity of their herds in part by adopting grass-centric, pasture-based feeding schedules. As grass-centric diets offer cows a more substantial amount of fatty-acids, they are significantly more nutritious than solely grain-based diets, which increase risks of both digestive and metabolic disorders.
Seth explained to me that corn still provides a vital energy source for dairy cows, so he still grows some corn-feed for his herd. But with their longevity in mind, he not only gets them to pasture, but forages grasses for hay to constitute a predominantly grass-fed diet year-round. From first-hand experience, Seth said he has no doubt that his cows are happier and healthier now that they eat more grass, and, most importantly, get out of their stalls and roam the land.
“The volume of milk I produce is such an insignificant drop in the bucket to the industry,” said Seth, “But at least when I’m done with the day, and I’m looking at what I’m doing, I feel okay.” By scaling down and seeking healthy alternatives for his cows, Seth does his part to resist the status quo, which he is proud of. Plus, the rewards have been twofold. In addition to cutting feed costs, Seth’s new grass-centric model has garnered appeal within a niche market. As his new methods veer towards the ethos of organic, eco-sensitive farming, three local artisan cheese makers now purchase a portion of Seth’s milk at a premium price.
Local, organic food movements will be considered further in part by other dairy farmers I spoke with. Speaking of Seth’s business in particular, working within a niche, eco-sensitive market means he no longer relies solely on commodity milk prices.
As a matter of fact, Seth no longer relies solely on milk. Amid his recent changes, Seth also diversified his land-use and began farming 25 acres of hemp.
The United States’ 2018 Farm Bill made marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin, hemp, whose flowers contain the trendy ingredient, Cannabidiol (CBD), a federally legal substance. Less than a year later in Vermont, the hemp industry is booming. Fortunately, for Seth, he made arrangements with an in-state processor to whom he will sell all of his hemp: eventually manufactured into a variety of CBD products. Over the next few years, Seth thinks hemp could supplement his income from milk sales tremendously.
In an economy of scale, smaller-scale dairy farmers bear the brunt of uncontrollably low prices. But as shown by Seth Leach, a small-scale dairy farmer can also be the most versatile. Still, Seth’s pursuits are not common in his cohort. “There’s a certain population of small dairy farmers that I don’t feel bad for,” said Seth. “They’ll tell you: ‘This is the way we’ve always done things, so this is the way we’re going to keep doing things.’… So, they’re on their way out.”
Seth chose to go against the grain. But even amid a crisis, some dairy farmers are still sticking to their conventions and pledging their allegiance to ‘the American way’: all striving to survive by a system which drives more and more dairy farms to fail.
Although some dairy farm owners may be impervious to change, Seth Leach is not the only small dairy farmer in his community enduring the crisis. Literally a stones throw away from Seth lives Jeremy Russo, a sixth-generation dairy farmer. Jeremy and Seth grew up together, as did their ancestors, who have dairy farmed in the same valley, on the same lands, for over two centuries. Like Seth, Jeremy is tall and broad. He too runs a small-scale dairy farm, with 80 cows, close in size to Seth’s operation. Aesthetically — aside from Seth’s hemp field — their farms resemble one another. But another key difference distinguishes the two: Jeremy Russo’s dairy farm is certified organic.
Only small-scale dairy farms are eligible to transition to organic under Vermont’s certifying agent; over the last few years, the number of organic dairy farms in the state has hovered around 200 — constituting nearly one-third of the state’s remaining small-scale operations.¹ Adopting an organic certification gives small-farm owners in Vermont the opportunity to sell their milk to organic co-ops for nearly twice the amount conventional milk goes for. Plus, organic co-ops enforce production quotas to help stabilize these prices. In this way, the organic milk market in the U.S. integrates a supply-management mechanism akin to the ‘Canadian-style’ system: a reprieve from the conventional market’s volatility.
Organic certifications were designed to reward farmers like Jeremy for their commitments to pro-environmental farming methods. Contrary to conventional methods, an organic certification places stringent regulations on the use of antibiotics, bans treatment of dairy cows’ feed with synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and upholds a rule that they must get at least 30% of their food by grazing pasture.
“If we were still conventional, I would honestly be like, ‘there’s no light, it’s hopeless’.”
Despite premiums for organic milk, however, organic regulations cost organic dairy farmers around two times the amount it takes conventional farmers to make milk. Because organic dairy cows feed on mostly grasses, they yield nearly 30% less milk than conventional, grain-fed cows; thus requiring more input per gallon of milk they produce. Last year, Jeremy’s operating costs were roughly $35 per hundred-weight of milk. The same year, his processor, Organic Valley, paid him $34 per hundred-weight. In an industry wherein dairy farmers — both conventional and organic — are powerless to fix their own prices, it is never certain that operating costs will get covered every year. But a more stable price in the organic market gives Jeremy hope. “We were in a deep, dark, place when we were conventional,” Jeremy said, “There is some light at the end of our tunnel. If we were still conventional, I would honestly be like, ‘there’s no light, it’s hopeless’.”
Jeremy told me his farm was virtually organic before receiving a certification in 2011, but not voluntarily. “Our cows were grazing, we managed a pasture, we weren’t using fertilizer on our fields. We weren’t using a lot of antibiotics, we just didn’t have any money!” he said. “We were just barely sustaining a herd of cows, really, in a survival mode.”
When Jeremy was in ‘survival mode,’ he already met most organic criteria, so it wasn’t difficult to become certified. But if it were not for the challenges he experienced prior to becoming certified, Jeremy said he probably would never have sought the certification. “We’re not these bearded hippies ‘living off the land’,” he said. “We’re business people. We were conventionally farming and just saw that that system is broken.”
Jeremy knew a switch to organic would save his business — and it did. But today’s small-scale conventional dairy farmers are no longer guaranteed a stable income by converting to organic, even if they wanted to.
Due to significant increases in demand for organic milk in the early 2010s, major organic co-ops took on as many new farms as they could. This quickly over-crowded the market, led to an over-supply, created a glut, and drove prices down. In response, organic co-ops began barring entry to new farms.¹ Meanwhile, mega-sized organic dairy operations — located predominantly in the Western plains of the U.S., where organic certifications are not restricted solely to small-scale farms — began ruling the organic milk market. Yet as these farms continue their reign and perpetuate a glut, some have been referred to as ‘fauxganic’. Cited for skirting organic regulations, such farms have been condemned for undercutting smaller-scale farmers who work hard to retain their certifications.⁴
Jeremy acknowledged the fauxganic issue, but he dismissed it as a primary concern. Rather, he was emphatic that no matter the methods dairy farmers use, no matter the size of their farm, whether conventional or organic, too much milk is the overarching problem. Jeremy believes that a decrease in consumer demand for dairy milk is at the root of the surplus. “It’s the competition from the soy milks, the nut milks, and oat milks,” said Jeremy. These days, Americans are, in fact, drinking less dairy milk. On top of the pressures inherent to an economy of scale, small-scale dairy producers are threatened even more by the burgeoning market of dairy-milk alternatives. “I hate to say it, but it almost feels like you’re a dinosaur,” Jeremy said. “We are almost antiques, or…obsolete, because people just don’t drink milk anymore.”
Jeremy Russo’s contract with a prominent organic co-op gives him more hope than most small-scale dairy farmers today; Seth Leach being an exception. But in the face of corruption, gluts, and small-farm attrition, other small-scale dairy farmers have chosen to avoid the industry’s commodity supply-chains altogether.
‘Fighting the Good Fight’
Cynthia Larson looked out beyond the pasture, her gaze tilted to the horizon of craggy, forested mountains — alive with a mosaic of summer greenery. Her shoulder-length gray hair was pulled back loosely into a bun, as always. Her sixty-year-old face barely formed a wrinkle. In front of the old stone wall where we sat, clovers and tall blades of grass swayed in the warm evening breeze. Mooing cows emerged eagerly from the barn, whipping their tails as they began their jaunt to graze the grassy hills.
Cynthia cracked a meek smile. “I’m not sure we’re going to make it,” she said. Like many dairy farmers today, Cynthia and her husband, Rich Larson, accept that their dairy farm might not survive. But the Larsons’ operation is unique.
Cynthia and Rich own and operate a small dairy farm in Wells, Vermont, fifteen minutes up the valley from Seth Leach and Jeremy Russo’s farms. Rich Larson is an impressively tall, lanky, old man. He has a saying: “dairy farming is a disease, and I caught it.” He and Cynthia opened their first farm on their current property in 1977, a small conventional dairy farm peaking at 150 cows. But due in part to the conventional milk market’s volatility, that farm was forced to close in 1993.
Cynthia said the collapse of her and Rich’s first operation initially discouraged them from revamping their business, but they decided to reactivate in 2007. Beginning again with only four cows, the Larsons sold farm-fresh milk to friends and neighbors. Since then, they’ve capped their herd at 60 cows and become certified organic. But as selling their milk to an organic co-op wasn’t an option by that time, they chose to take processing and manufacturing into their own hands.
In 2017, the Larsons got grant-funding to install their own on-site processing facilities, for a creamery. Now, they sell home-made milk, yogurt, butter, skyr, and gelato, all out of their farm-stand — a tiny wooden room in their house crammed with several large refrigerators and freezers.
In lieu of maximizing efficiency, the Larsons are devoted to filling their farm-stand with premium products. Whereas today’s dairy cows are typically ‘A1A2’ — having the A1 beta-casein protein, a genetic mutation in modern-day dairy cows which is linked to digestive health problems for many human consumers — the Larsons’ dairy cows are 100% A2A2, a protein make-up that is better for lactose sensitive consumers.
Cynthia said that she and Rich take pride in their products just as much as they love working to amend the disconnections between farmer, processor, and consumer. “When we wholesaled our milk [to a co-op], it was kind of fun to wave goodbye to the milk truck,” Cynthia said, “it went away and then we got a check in the mail. But now my life is much fuller.”
Nevertheless, the Larsons’ consumer-base in their tiny rural community cannot sufficiently support their business. Rich attends seasonal farmer’s markets with their products, slightly expanding their outreach. They also sell their excess fluid-milk to a local cheese-maker — one of the same people that Seth Leach sells to. But returns remain scant. Cynthia and Rich have lost nearly $100,000 for the past three years. “We have no retirement. Nothing,” said Cynthia, “I just sold my last IRA to make pay-roll. I really did. The last $5,000 IRA to keep this thing going…Not to make you feel sorry for us, but, because this is what is important to us.”
Cynthia told me that she never expected her and Rich would ever make much money in dairy farming. Opening a creamery was done merely in pursuit of sustaining the livelihood they love. Above all, for the Larsons, “it’s about fighting a good fight, for there to be a local food system in Vermont,” said Cynthia.
As the Larsons are completely isolated from conventional, commodity supply-chains, they fully depend on consumers who support contemporary Western ideals of local and organic food movements: fundamentally built on the principles of purchasing from farms that grow and distribute their products locally, and — most importantly — use farming methods focused on environmental stewardship.
When the Larsons were first struggling with their farm in the 1980s, environmental concerns were peripheral and overwhelming. However, Cynthia said her and Rich’s newfound environmentalism helped invigorate the revamp of their business. Ever since, the Larsons’ “Love of the land” has been central to their fight.
Cynthia and Rich express this love in part with their 100% Grass-Fed certification, supplementing their organic certification. While typical organic dairy farms manage pasture in addition to foraging both grasses and grains, the Larsons’ herd is entirely hay and pasture-fed: reducing fertilizer usage, omitting tillage, and bolstering soil health. “When you’re growing a good sod, you’re not releasing carbon into the atmosphere, and you’re not putting fertilizer and soil into the waterways,” Cynthia provided.
For pasture management, the Larsons employ rotational grazing, a traditional dairy farming method where cows move across designated paddocks of grass-land to allow for more controlled regrowth between grazing periods. Cynthia told me she and Rich go so far as considering themselves stewards of the microbiology in the soil. Healthy microbes means healthy soils, means healthy grasses, means healthy cows. As we stood in one particular paddock, Rich knelt down, plucked a clover, and chomped it, boasting its quality, grinning as he chewed.
Ample research supports the Larsons’ philosophy: per acre of land farmed, organic dairy farming methods focused on pasture management are significantly more conducive to ecological health than conventional methods.⁵
Land-Use, Water Woes, Contention
The conventional dairy model prescribes that cows’ feed, predominantly GMO-derived corn — designed to withstand toxic, yield-enhancing chemicals — is treated with a variety of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Fields on which this feed is grown are also deliberately covered with dairy cows’ manure — raw and untreated, rich in both phosphorous and nitrogen — to optimize fertilization and increase yields. When these nutrient-dense, manure-laden soils runoff into waterways, eutrophication begins and surface waters become choked by foul-smelling, oxygen depriving, blue-green algae blooms.
In Vermont, eutrophication is most concerning along the coast of Lake Champlain. One of the largest lakes in North America, Champlain is a defining feature of Vermont’s aesthetics. Its shores, waters, and islands are popular destinations for swimming, boating, and fishing; it is a main source of both public drinking water and irrigation for agriculture; and, it is home to 56 species of mammals, 318 species of birds, 91 species of fish, 21 species of amphibians, and 20 species of reptiles. Today, over half of the nutrient overloads threatening Lake Champlain’s ecosystems are attributable to agricultural runoff — particularly from dairy farms.
“If the state of Vermont would withdraw its support from conventional dairy farming, we would be on the road to fixing lake pollution,” said James Maroney.
James Maroney is a retired organic dairy farmer in Vermont, as well as the author of, “The Political Economy of Milk: Reinvigorating Vermont’s Family Dairy Farms,”⁶ along with countless opinion pieces in Vermont based news sources. A staunchest advocate of organic dairy farming, James puts dairy farms like the Larsons’ on a pedestal. In February 2019, James added to his written works with a detailed outline of actionable steps towards a state-wide conversion to organic dairy farming throughout Vermont. In short, he wants Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture to endorse the creation of a state-run organic dairy co-op to make small, organic dairy farms both viable and prevalent. James focuses his advocacy on his home state, but the core of his concerns is the entire conventional dairy paradigm — contingent on environmentally degenerative farming methods that are amplified in an economy of scale.
“My major concern is that the law is scrupulously silent about what dairy does that pollutes the lake...”
Concerns for the environmental impacts of mega-sized dairy farms are nothing new to environmentalists and not unique to Vermont. In places like California and New Zealand where these farms, often referred to as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), are commonplace, water and air quality problems are atrocious — not to mention their carbon footprint. In Vermont, where the highest densities of farmland are dominated by dairy CAFOs resting on floodplains surrounding Lake Champlain, water quality is just the most salient, and most contentious, of these concerns.
In addition to James Maroney’s work, concerns about the nutrient overloads stemming from a burgeoning scene of CAFOs have come from a multitude of voices throughout Vermont, including the former secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture. Meanwhile, CAFO owners often perceive they are personally vilified, which, naturally, they loathe.
“I don’t like these things that have pitted large and medium farms against smaller farms. It bothers me,” said Mark Lourie. Mark explained to me how, on his medium-size CAFO, he spreads his cows’ manure responsibly, and makes sure not to overdo chemical treatment on his corn-fields. In general, he firmly believes that bigger dairy farms like his do as well, if not better than small farms — whether conventional or organic — at mitigating water pollution. “Some of the smaller farms you drive by aren’t the cleanest operations in the world,” asserted Mark, “and unless there’s a complaint, nobody seems to bother them.”
Cynthia Larson shared Mark Lourie’s sentiment: “Big isn’t necessarily bad and small isn’t necessarily good,” she said. “It’s about management and about what’s going into the water.”
Between big and small, conventional and organic, there are nuances: a diverse spectrum of particular practices. Take Seth Leach for example, he errs on forage and pasture, but still has some conventionally grown crops. In a similar vein, typical small-scale certified organic dairy farmers like Jeremy Russo still grow crops fertilized by manure; if not managed properly, some of that manure may erode into the watershed. Conversely, some CAFOs in Vermont have started to shift towards practices like no-till farming, cover cropping, and manure-injection on their corn fields to help improve soil health, and prevent nutrient runoff.
Before we try to put farmers into boxes, or pigeon-hole CAFO-owners as environmental villains, we must first consider the particulars of individual farms.
“Some of them are more responsible than others,” Cynthia Larson said, speaking of Vermont’s CAFOs, “but there are a couple that are totally irresponsible, and I just think somebody should be shutting them down.” James Maroney, however, took issue with this particular outlook. To James, in his words, “the mantra that, ‘there’s a few rogue farmers out there, we just need to find them’,” is fraught. Instead of merely calling out a few “rogue” farmers, James thinks we ought to focus on challenging the powers complicit in upholding the conventional default. He specifically condemned Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture for designing piecemeal environmental regulations.
Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture requires each dairy farm in the state to adhere to a set of nutrient management guidelines called the RAPs (Required Agricultural Practice Rules): lending focus to erosion control, how manure is stored, and when and where manure can be spread. Moreover, James was emphatic that the RAPs do not address the real problems. “My major concern is that the law is scrupulously silent about what dairy does that pollutes the lake,” he said, “it does not mention the overstocking of farms, and it does not mention the importation of feed.”
Seth Leach took a similar stance on the issue. “Although the RAPs are well intended, they really don’t solve the issue,” said Seth. “There’s a mathematical equation that’s out of balance, and it seems like the more that farms grow, the less balanced it becomes.”
An economy of scale is putting too many cows, who require too much feed, and create too much manure, on a limited land-base, particularly in Vermont’s mostly mountainous landscapes. Even with regulations like the RAPs, copious amounts of manure from an ‘overstocking of farms’ build up in soils over time. Without enough cropland to utilize all this manure, nutrient overloads are inevitable. Plus, even the state’s largest CAFOs require mass amounts of imported feed to sustain increasingly large herds. As more of this phosphorous-rich feed enters the state, it brings an even greater influx of lake-harming nutrients to the region. Also, as the RAPs do not regulate the use of toxic pest- and weed-killers, the rise of CAFOs implies a substantial increase in the use of such chemicals on locally grown crops, thus posing additional threats to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
To Seth Leach, the problem is clear. “It’s very much a density thing,” he said. “If you made the dairy industry less dense, there would be less of an environmental impact.”
Still, environmental externalities, the mass confinement of cows, and small-farm attrition are not the only diagnostics of the American dairy crisis; an economy of scale hinges on the exploitation of migrant labor.
This is no secret to Seth Leach. “Dairy farmers are being taught that, if they double their size, they’ll gain all these efficiencies…all they need is a few more laborers to work inexpensively.”
The financial resilience of any dairy farm is only attributable to the labor keeping it afloat, and the arduous, low-paid work required of any dairy farmworker doesn’t appeal to most U.S. born Americans. In Vermont, roughly 1,500 Latinx migrants, most of whom are thought to be undocumented, constitute approximately one-third of the dairy sector’s labor force.⁷
I did not have the opportunity to engage with any migrant farmworkers in Vermont; none of the farm-owners I interviewed said they had any Latinx employees. But it is imperative to acknowledge that the human rights abuses commonly faced by Latinx farmworkers are inextricable from the broader American dairy crisis.
When considering the American dairy industry’s transformations over the last couple of decades, it is important to remember NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Following its establishment in the 1990s, NAFTA bolstered economies of scale in agriculture internationally between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, consequently spurring the obsolescence of small-farms throughout the continent while simultaneously concentrating dairy production to the U.S. dairy industry.⁷ Meanwhile, the deregulation of Mexico’s dairy industry forced upwards of two-million Latinx farmers off their lands; many of whom sought work north of the U.S.-Mexico border.⁷ Since the early ’90s, Vermont has become a regular place for Latinx migrants to meet the high demands for cheap labor on the state’s dairy farms. Yet only in recent years has light been shed on the horrendous living and working conditions commonly faced by migrant farmworkers throughout the state.
Migrant Justice, an organization led by Latinx migrants in Vermont, summarizes these problems on their website:
“Workers typically work 60–80 hours per week and endure extreme isolation, often without a clear sense of where they are and are systemically excluded from many worker and housing rights protections […] many experience human rights abuses.”
As the influx of Latinx farmworkers in Vermont has coincided with the expansion and consolidation of the state’s dairy farms, many migrant laborers now live and work on medium and large-scale CAFOs — but not exclusively. Latinx people in Vermont work on all sorts of dairy farms, including small organic operations. Big factory farms tend to make labor more invisible; however, migrant laborers go widely unrecognized no matter which farm they work on. Latinx farmworkers are central to the production and profitability of Vermont’s dairy sector, yet their invisibility has forced many to fight for basic human rights from the bottom of a socio-economic hierarchy where they are often discriminated against along racial lines.
A timely new book and ethnography written by Teresa M. Mares entitled “Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont”⁷ powerfully illuminates the lived experiences of Latinx farmworkers in Vermont. In her novel, Mares discusses the previously under-studied context of Vermont along with other places in North America where agricultural enterprises are dependent upon the exploitation of migrant labor. An excerpt from the introduction of Mares’ book does well to summarize the crux of this widespread human rights crisis, focusing on the Vermont dairy sector as a place,
“…where insiders and outsiders are defined, where some bodies matter more than others, and where the labor of some food workers is visible and celebrated, while the labor of others is hidden and exploited.” (p. 4)
Here, Mares draws a distinction between white, U.S. born people — like the folks I was able to interview — and Latinx migrants. Together, each group works hard to sustain Vermont’s dairy sector, but not without jarring disparities in the ways they are treated and perceived. Mistreatment of migrant farmworkers in Vermont is undoubtedly fueled by racial prejudice. However, pertinent to the dairy crisis as a whole, industry conditions that make it near impossible for most farm-owners to pay their bills only exacerbate the downward pressure on farmworkers’ wages.
“There’s no changing the trajectory”
In Vermont, the American dairy crisis manifests dire consequences for farm-owners, farmworkers, cows, lands, and waters. But there is resistance.
Pertaining to the mistreatment of Latinx peoples, in recent years, grassroots initiatives lead by Migrant Justice have been paramount in the way of redressing discrimination against the migrant farmworkers who help shoulder Vermont’s dairy sector.⁷
Concerning environmental degradation, Vermonters like James Maroney are out to dismantle the conventional dairy model entirely. His calls to create more infrastructure to support organic alternatives in dairy farming are crucial for supporting dairy farming communities, cows, and the ecosystems on which they all rely. Moving forward, however, there are opportunities for such pursuits to better integrate goals of social justice as well.⁸ For eco-sensitive markets to fully resist the detriments of conventional commodity supply-chains, people like James Maroney could reach out to organizations like Migrant Justice to ensure that pursuits toward ecological regeneration coincide with commitments to dignified work for laborers.
From the ‘top-down’, steps toward fixing the underlying problem of over-supply have been slow, and arguably disingenuous. Over the last year, two major events were held in the Northeast U.S. to address the industry conditions that cripple small-scale dairy farms throughout the country. At a meeting in Albany, New York in August, 2018, an estimated 400 people, including dairy farmers, industry leaders representing several prominent dairy cooperatives in the U.S., and representatives from both federal and state governments, gathered to address ‘The Dairy Farm Dilemma’.¹ Discussions at this meeting involved supply management, but a national quota system is not slated to be advanced anytime soon. Furthermore, although this particular meeting was organized by Agri-Mark co-op, and directed in part by representatives of the other major co-ops present, their blatant conflicts of interest — coupled with their influence in federal delegations regarding the dairy industry — make a future with supply management unlikely.
Another meeting, held in northern Vermont in April, 2019, also gathered hundreds of dairy farmers, industry leaders, and government officials to address the dairy crisis. This particular meeting focused on responding to direct input from dairy farmers struggling throughout New England. Positive outcomes of the meeting included plans for legislators to visit dairy farms throughout the region to hear directly from more farm-owners, as well as workshops designed to help farm-owners create long-term plans beyond their conventional business models.
As the implementation of supply management remains suspended indefinitely, more and more dairy farmers are seeking niche market options, and diversifying their farms to try to stay in business.
Seth Leach, for example, showcases this sort of ‘outside the box’ thinking on his dairy farm. But not every farm owner with similar ideas as Seth has been, or will be, as fortunate.
“Not everybody has this,” said Seth. He was talking about his land. Not every small-scale dairy farmer has Seth’s verdant pastures, nor do they have extra acres of fertile fields perfectly suited for diversifying and growing hemp — not to mention access to a processor ready to purchase a whole 25 acres of the cash-crop. All this, and local markets for artisan cheese, all within close proximity — Seth’s family farm is by no means short on resources for success. Meanwhile, in most cases, the individual efforts of small-scale American dairy farmers without such privileges remain futile under the pressures of a broken system.
It is easy to think poorly of the farms — “the big guys”, as Seth calls them — that pose greater risks to the environment, imprison more cows, create conditions ripe for labor exploitation, and subsume the lands of small farms that fail in their shadow. But is it right to scrutinize the owners of these big farms who have merely adhered to the zeitgeist of the industry? Both Mark Lourie and Seth Leach pointed to the prevailing attitude among their peers that dairy farming in America today is about the ‘survival of the fittest,’ and a ‘right’ — an entitlement, a responsibility — to expand. Reflective of an individual’s character — perhaps; but this attitude is just as much a byproduct of the broken system which American dairy farmers have internalized and reproduced.
Prolific author and environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, coined the term, ‘monocultures of the mind,’⁹ suggesting that when diversity is lost from perception, it is consequently lost from the world. Today, this condition plagues the American dairy industry. An economy of scale establishes not only a more homogenous infrastructure of CAFOs, but a more homogenous infrastructure of perception among American dairy farmers. The infatuation with ‘getting big’ distracts an otherwise diverse community of hard-working problem solvers from working together to create more diverse avenues for change.
It was almost two months after my first meeting with Seth, and now I was sitting in the passengers’ seat of his pickup truck — the massive kind that’s lifted high above enormous tires. As the hot September sun poured through the windows, we drove along the perimeter of his hemp field — only days away from harvest. The plants were huge: as tall as Seth, as wide as a cow. Identical to marijuana, the hemp’s aroma filled the air for miles. “It’s not something that I can hang my hat on yet,” said Seth. Until he gets a check from his processor, to him, the hemp is a gamble.
After admiring the expanse of sticky, green flowers, we forded the truck back through a small creek and headed for the pasture. On our way, we passed several dozen cows rested shaded in their stalls. Fresh piles of manure scattered the steep slope on which we began our ascent. More cows ahead. The truck’s tires spat up rocks as Seth maneuvered us along the narrow dirt road. Before long, we came to a halt; fifty large cows stood shaded at the forest edge. As we hopped out of the truck, they erupted from the woods in a small stampede — probably thinking we brought the grain pale, said Seth. They surrounded us.
As a black and white cow proceeded to slobber Seth’s wrist, I asked him what he thought about the future of the dairy industry. “I don’t think there’s anything about the dairy industry that’s going to change,” he said. “There’s no changing the trajectory.” Pessimistic, but not unreasonable. His outlook on his own farm was more positive:
“I feel pretty solid about how my business looks moving forward…There are days where it feels like everything is just careening out of control,” he said, “But I would rather bet on myself and my land than what’s going on out there in the commodity markets.”
Seth will always have the pressures inherent of being a dairy farmer. But the further he diverges from the conventions of the industry, the less pressure he takes on. By extension, there is also much less pressure on his land, his employees, and his beloved cows.
- Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “Report and Recommendations of the Vermont Milk Commission to the Vermont Legislature,” January 2019.
- Merriott, Dominic. “Factors Associated with the Farmer Suicide Crisis in India.” Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health. 6 (2016): 217–27.
- Redford, H. Kent, Brosius, J. Peter. “Diversity and Homogenization in the Endgame.” Global Environmental Change. 16 (2006): 317–19.
- Whoriskey, Peter. “Why Your ‘organic’ Milk May Not Be Organic.” The Washington Post, May 1, 2017, sec. Business.
- Van Der Werf, Hayo M.G., Kanyarushoki, Claver, and Corson, Michael S. “An Operational Method for the Evaluation of Resource Use and Environmental Impacts of Dairy Farms by Life Cycle Assessment.” Journal of Environmental Management 90, no. 11 (August 2009): 3643–52.
- Maroney, James H. Jr. The Political Economy of Milk: Reinvigorating Vermont’s Family Dairy Farms. Gala Books, 2008.
- Mares, Teresa M. Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont. University of California Press, 2019.
- Shreck, Aimee, Getz, Christy, and Feenstra, Gail. “Social Sustainability, Farm Labor, and Organic Agriculture: Findings from an Exploratory Analysis.” Agriculture and Human Values 23 (2006): 439–49.
- Shiva, Vandana. “Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and the Third World.” Third World Network, Penang. 1993.