Friedman School screens ‘Forgotten Farms,’ discusses New England dairy farms

A cow from Whittier Farms, a family-owned dairy farm, is pictured. Courtesy Samantha Whittier

In a world which produces new food media and makes advances in food science every day, opinions vary and change for any given food product. As far as most dairy farmers are concerned, their products are certainly not immune to the cultural and scientific discussion of what constitutes a healthy diet.

To examine the contemporary trends affecting this sector, on March 27, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s One Health Club hosted a screening of the film “Forgotten Farms,” a documentary featuring some of the longest-standing dairy farmers in New England. According to the film’s description, dairy farms have persisted as the backbone of New England agriculture for decades, and in some cases more than a century, without gaining much cultural recognition in today’s food economy.

The film was directed by Dave Simonds and produced by Sarah Gardner. Gardner, who lectures in environmental studies at Williams College, spoke to the challenges facing dairy farms in New England. While the growing popularity of veganism and awareness of lactose intolerance share some responsibility for declining dairy product sales, there are a whole host of other factors unique to New England agriculture that makes it especially difficult to operate a dairy farm, according to Gardner.

New England has really high land values, high property taxes and high development pressures on the land. There aren’t many thriving rural economies in New England,she said.

As the film notes, consequently, the number of dairy farms in New England has dropped from roughly 20,000 in 1959 to fewer than 2,000 in 2012. In Massachusetts alone, only 117 dairy farms remain, according to the filmmakers and the Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers.

For many, dairy has become a symbol of the most controversial aspects of American food production — animal rights, environmental health and adequate nutrition. These controversies haven’t left the industry unscathed, and declining demand has precipitated the departure of thousands of dairy farmers across the country. On Feb. 27, NPR reported on a string of dairy farmer suicides that have occurred throughout the Northeast, reflecting the demoralizing and tragic consequences of this decline.

Forgotten Farms” intends to shed light upon the dairy farmers who remain, interviewing farmers like Louis Escobar of Escobar’s Highland Farm, Win Chenail of the Chenail Brothers Dairy and Darryl Williams of Luther Belden Farm on how they have endured the struggle to remain competitive in a rapidly shifting food economy. The film depicts many farmers relying on their spouses’ second jobs to supplement their shrinking milk checks, as they dread the day that they might have to shut their doors.

Samantha Whittier, a fifth-generation Massachusetts dairy farmer at family-owned Whittier Farms in Sutton, Mass. and co-host of the film screening, has worked hard to weather the volatility.

“For my family, dairying is about constantly diversifying to ensure we are as prepared as we can be for the highs and lows of the changing markets,” she said.

As a response, Whittier Farms has added a storefront retail operation to supplement their milk sales as a member of Cabot Creamery Cooperative, a cooperative that collectively supports over a thousand dairy farms across New England and upstate New York. Though they may not connote the same appeal as a glass bottle of artisan milk, labels like Cabot reflect the efforts of Whittier and other farmers to be agile and resourceful in protecting their livelihoods, and to adapt to keep their land in the business for as long as possible.

Gardner reflected on the often negative perceptions of dairy farming, citing the cultural wariness associated with large-scale industrial operations.

“Once they scale up, they get slammed for being commercial,” Gardner said. “They’re not going to stay in business unless they scale up.”

“We need to expand our definition of local agriculture to commercial agriculture,” she said.

Responding to the film, Ilana Cliffer, first-year Ph.D. student in food policy and applied nutrition, said that it offers a refreshing take on the dairy industry that is often not discussed.

“What really stood out to me was the pride that dairy farmers have in their farms and their love for their jobs,” Cliffer said. “The view they gave of dairy farmers in the Northeast ran contrary to what you often hear in the media about big bad industrial farms, and I think it was a very important perspective to hear.”

While the profiles of earnest dairy farmers serve as the soul of the film, “Forgotten Farms” raises questions about what constitutes a local food system and who has a stake in deciding what that system looks like. According to Christian Petersassociate professor at the Friedman School, incorporating commercial agriculture makes particular sense when considering dairy as part of an efficient regional food system.

“Fluid milk is a relatively regional food product already. Localizing it actually makes it less environmentally efficient,” he said.

For their part, dairy farmers have served as economic lynch pins in New England — a typical dairy cow contributes nearly $14,000 to the economy each year, and the New England dairy industry as a whole generates over $1 billion annually. While absolute revenue is important, dairy farms also exhibit a multiplier effect, where their products generate revenue for the local community beyond their own operations — to feed and equipment suppliers, veterinarians and their own labor force.

Without dairy, we lose our food security and our farmland,” Gardner said.

There may be something that politicians can do to help the industry: On the same day as the film screening, Gardner was also present at the Agriculture Day celebrations at the Massachusetts State House to lobby for the expansion of the Dairy Farmer Tax Credit on behalf of farmers. Gardner noted that virtually every dairy farmer relies upon this tax relief in times of low milk prices.

Peters underlined the importance of understanding farmers’ needs before making decisions.

“Because of the complexity [of the dairy industry], you have to be willing to sit in this uncomfortable place where you’re listening and learning before you make any decisions,” Peters said.

A 2014 report by non-profit Food Solutions New England identified that local demand for locally produced food, including dairy, should increase to better support the food and agriculture system of New England. For Whittier and her farm, the biggest difference between breaking even and breaking down will be determined by the choices made at the grocery store.

“Understanding the companies that process and sell the local milk is essential as well, in making sure your consumer dollars are returned to the farmers. Support farmer-owned brands whenever possible,” Whittier said.