Environment | LongReads

Massachusetts Dairy Farmers Look Beyond Milk to Make Ends Meet

Cows in the main barn at Barstow's Longview Farm in Hadley.

Cows in the main barn at Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley.

On a late July morning in 2007, a group of dairy farmers, state legislators and various government officials met at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to discuss a crisis. After the attendees introduced themselves, the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, Scott Soares, described the “perfect storm” that drove the dairy industry into its dire condition. It started with a federal energy bill that President George W. Bush signed into law in August 2005. The Energy Policy Act provided new incentives to use ethanol, which is made from the same grains dairy farmers feed their cows, as a renewable fuel. As ethanol demand grew, so did the farmers’ costs to keep their herds nourished. Shortly after the bill passed, back-to-back hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed the Gulf of Mexico. The storms damaged valuable oil operations in the region and energy costs rose dramatically. Then, the price paid to farmers for their milk dropped. Farmers were losing money on every gallon of milk they produced.

It was the first meeting of the Dairy Farm Revitalization Task Force. It came together under the recommendation of Commissioner Soares, who received a petition signed by more than a quarter of the state’s dairy farms. Among their complaints was the fact that dairy farmers were not making a livable wage. In 2006, it cost them 49 cents more to make a gallon of milk than they were getting paid for it. The Task Force’s mission was to come up with a plan to provide immediate relief and develop long-term solutions for the dwindling dairy industry.

The recent dairy crisis highlights an ongoing economic struggle facing the state’s dairies. In 1950, there were nearly 5,000 dairy farms. Today, that number has dropped below 200. Historically low prices paid to farmers for milk coupled with the cost of producing it has been blamed for the dairy demise. Many farms are forced into bankruptcy and their only option is to sell off their land and herds. But the handful of farms that have made it this far are exploring ways to make money by producing commodities other than milk. Some are looking into generating energy on the farm.

Dairy farming in Massachusetts is a family business. It is a lifestyle that has sustained multiple generations. David Barstow is a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Hadley. Barstow’s Longview Farm is nestled between the Connecticut River and Skinner State Park in the town’s historic district of Hockanum. His family has been working this parcel of land since the early 1800s. He says he’s unsure if they’ll last another 200 years given the current conditions.

“It’s always been a struggle,” Barstow says about keeping the farm going. He laughs. His smile fades and he regains his composure. “I don’t mind the work, it’s all good. Good place to raise kids and all. But the margins are too tight.”

The main source of income for the Barstows is the milk their cows produce. But the size of the check they receive for their milk is always changing. Before the 1990s, milk prices typically fluctuated by a few cents per hundred pounds each year. Since then, it has become common for prices to rise and fall by as much as $6. Milk prices are determined by a complicated federal system that is responsive to supply and demand factors both in the United States and abroad. Stephen Herbert, director of the Center for Agriculture at UMass Amherst, says dairy farmers have good days and bad days. He adds one of the reasons for the decline in dairy farms is that the wholesale milk price hasn’t been able to support many farms.

For dairy farmers, cows are vital to their livelihood. Herbert grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand and his family learned firsthand the importance of healthy cows. A big problem for their herd was an outbreak of tuberculosis. “We would lose cows all the time. And that was devastating to the economic viability of the farm,” he says. Eventually his father was forced to sell the farm and move to the city. As he speaks in his soft accent, Herbert leans back in his chair and brings his hands together behind his head. “You get worn down with trying to make things work,” he adds.

Milk is trickier to sell than other agricultural commodities. In a testimony to the House of Representative’s Committee on Agriculture, Hadley dairy farmer Gordon Cook reported one of the problems is that fluid milk is perishable. Once it leaves the farm, it needs to be sold quickly, regardless of the level of demand. Recently, more and more milk is being processed into manufactured products, like cheese and butter, and American consumption of fluid milk has declined.

On the Barstow’s farm in Hadley, tough times have forced them to seek out new sources of revenue. Some dairy farmers can do that by adding more cows to their milking herd. But more cows require more space, and space is something the Barstow’s don’t have. Their farm is surrounded by developed land so they need to find ways to work with what they have. A few years ago, they opened a farm store on a hill in the front of their property. “So far the store’s just about breaking. It’s certainly not a money-maker yet,” Barstow says. Running a retail store is a new business for them and he says it comes with a learning curve. But now a commodity they have more of than they know what to do with may help offset some costs.

The average dairy cow produces about 150 pounds of manure each day. While manure has long been used as a soil fertilizer, concerns about global warming and renewable energy have farmers thinking up new ways to deal with it all. As manure decomposes, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that can trap heat more effectively than carbon dioxide. Although more potent than carbon dioxide, there is a lot less methane produced in the United States. Methane is the main component of natural gas that, when burned, emits 30 to 40 percent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Methane from abundant cow manure on dairy farms can be captured by sealing it in a large tank, cutting off its supply of oxygen. When heat is added to the mixture, which may include other organic waste like food scraps, natural bacteria break it down and create biogas, a concoction of methane, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. The gas generated by a process called anaerobic digestion can be burned and used to fuel an electric generator. Barstow’s Longview Farm is joining four other Massachusetts dairy farms that are building digesters on their farms to convert millions of pounds of cow manure into renewable energy.

A manure storage tank that will be hooked up to the underground digester.

On Barstow’s Longview Farm, the project is a work in progress. Two giant, black storage containers sit on either side of the landscape. They can hold a combined two million gallons of manure. One of them is almost full. Next to it, a circle 80 feet across is marked where an underground tank will sit 16 feet deep.

Just outside the main barn, Barstow kicks scraps of paper plates, bowls and silverware. He says they bring this compostable waste from the farm store up here where the cows walk on it and it becomes part of the compost. There is a large pile of manure on the other side of the barn. They flip this pile throughout the year and come springtime, they spread it on their fields as fertilizer. When the digester project is complete, some of this manure will get pushed into a pit. From there, it will get pumped down to the digester.

Construction is on hold until they can secure the funding they need to build it. When they first started the project, they weren’t expecting it to take this long. “But because the financial thing went all bust and the banks are so tight with their money, we have some hurdles,” he says. Barstow says it costs about $2 million and so far they have grants totaling half of that amount.

The biogas will be used to power a 300-kilowatt generator that will be hooked up to the electric grid. The power company will pay the farm for the energy the digester produces. “I don’t think we’re gonna get rich doing this,” Barstow says. He runs his fingers though his mustache. “I think it’s better for the environment to burn off the methane. I think it’s better for the landfills to make electricity and burn off the methane. So it seems like a win-win. And if it can help us survive, then good.”

In his office at UMass Amherst, Hebert says the methane digesters are one way local farmers are trying to diversify their income sources. He points out that Cook’s farm sells ice cream created from their milk, and it works for them. At Mapleline Farm, they sell and deliver their milk directly to homes in surrounding communities. At the Hunt Farm just north of here in Orange, they’re trying their hand at producing solar power. “So farmers are innovating in different ways. These farmers are growing solar or growing digesters so they can keep farming and producing milk,” Herbert says.

Barstow says he thinks the digester could help, but milk will remain their focus. He steps into a dark room past a metal tank. A Blake Shelton song is playing on the radio. He walks up a short staircase and flips on a light. “Cows get milked in here,” he says as he opens an adjacent door. There are 14 milking stations in this room, seven on each side. A series of hoses and pipes carry the milk into the steel tank in the next room. A hand written sign on the wall reads, “Treat the cows with patience and respect. They pay for everything.” Every two days, a large truck from dairy cooperative Agri-Mark comes to collect the milk from the tank and transport it to its processing facility in West Springfield. They let Agri-Mark handle sales and marketing. For the Barstows, it’s about continuing a way of life their ancestors started long ago. Barstow says the next generation is here and they want to keep it going. They may not be able to control the economy, but they can keep their cows happy and producing quality milk.

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