Massachusetts has fewer than 200 remaining dairy farms, down 75% since the 1980's. That works out to fewer than two farms for every three towns in the Commonwealth. Virtually all of these dairy farms are family owned, and the largest of the them all, the Aragi family's Pine Island Farm in Sheffield, just auctioned off more than 1/3 of its herd to forestall foreclosure. The April 20th auction of 614 prime Holstein heifers netted the Aragi's $767,000, which Louis Aragi says is just enough to pay last year's bills. Public Radio Station WBUR in Boston covered the story, and has been running excellent series on the State's struggling dairy industry:
"Aragi said he couldn't sleep at night, knowing they owed people money. Milk prices have been low in part because the price of milk is fixed by the price of milk powder contracts out West, where dairy producers locked into long-term low prices with a New Zealand company. It's recently come to light that some dry milk processors under-reported the prices that they were getting, which in turn depressed the price of milk for farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating."
The WBUR feature reported that "the state's dairy farmers are all dealing with the dual economic pressures of the declining milk prices and the rising costs of feed, fuel, and fertilizer" and noted that "the Commissioner of Agriculture may soon declare an economic emergency in the industry." The price of feed corn has gone up due to increased demand for ethanol production. "Massachusetts farmers are getting $1.14 a gallon for their milk. They need $1.55 a gallon to break even." Things are just as bad in Connecticut.
The Aragi's have owned their farm since 1962. It lies in the Housatonic floodplain, and contains some of the richest bottom land in Berkshire County, as well as fragments of rare habitats like floodplain forest that were cleared elsewhere long ago for agriculture. The Sheffield Land Trust has conserved portions of 11 farms with state funding through the Commonwealth's Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program, which pays farmers for the development rights on their land to maintain the agricultural land base. Sadly, preserving farmland without finding ways to sustaining farming in our region is a real possibility.
Most of the Aragi's heifers were bought by dairies in Wisconsin, going west to greener pastures in an echo of the last, great farming crisis that struck New England after the Civil War. At that time, western lands opened up with better soils and linked by rail to eastern cities, and some of the towns in the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills lost more than 2/3 of their populations to westward and urban migration. The mainstay of our region's agriculture at that time was not dairy but sheep, and as the textile industry evolved away from wool and hoof and mouth disease decimated our Merino flocks, the future of farming in these parts looked very bleak indeed. Dairy was the one farm product where eastern farmers had an advantage over their western counterparts. Being perishable meant that it needed to be produced closer to eastern consumers, and there were excellent transportation networks and support services to bring the milk to market. Farms that might have had a dozen head of cattle expanded to several hundred to meet the demand, and for the next 80 years or so dairy was the primary agricultural activity in southern New England and eastern New York.
We are now at another watershed moment in New England agriculture. The farms that will survive here will be those that are able to diversify their products, adding value and expanding their markets without over-extending farm resources, or that gentrify. The final farm product, as many agricultural families know too well, is houses.