WILLIAMSTOWN >> This is the month to thank your dairy farmer.
If you're brave enough to approach a dairy farmer, try not to worry if he seems a little standoffish and curmudgeonly. Or if he acts like he doesn't notice you standing awkwardly in the driveway. If you wait there long enough, he might emerge from the barn and ask, "Can I help you?"
If you express genuine interest, you'll soon get into a conversation about cows, hay, tractors and milk prices, and then he might ask if you want to see the calves and if you do, the milking parlor might be next, and before you know it, you may be invited in for a sandwich.
Turns out, he's not really such a curmudgeon after all, he's just been up since 4 a.m. milking, then spent half the morning repairing a hydraulic line on a broken manure spreader, hasn't had lunch yet and still has eight hours of haying to do.
Lots of local dairy
June is National Dairy Month, established in 1937 to promote dairy consumption and to support commercial farmers. It's not too late to thank your local dairy farmers for their contributions to your life in the Berkshires.
We have plenty to be thankful for — the milk in our coffee, the cheese on our pizza and the ice cream in our cone. Most of the milk in Berkshire supermarkets comes from farms in our region: the Berkshires, eastern New York and southern Vermont, and lots of the products in the dairy case are made from this milk as well. Dairy remains, by far, the leading agricultural product in Berkshire County.
We can thank them for our pastoral landscapes because it's the dairy farmers that keep our views open. The Berkshire dairy farms steward most of our farmland — pastures, crops and hay — about 7,000 acres. An average Berkshire dairy manages 300-600 acres. Without these farms, the working landscape we love becomes houses or woods.
Let's not forget their contribution to our local economy: a typical 150 cow dairy farm spends over a million dollars a year in feed, seeds, labor, insurance, fuel, utilities, and services. Some farms are among the biggest businesses in our rural towns. And they are certainly among the oldest, going back 100 years or more.
But it's not an easy place to be a dairy farmer. As our rural towns become more gentrified with second homes, farmers feel the squeeze.
When you support dairy farms, you are supporting family businesses. Every Berkshire dairy is a family farm, and many have three generations working. There is a younger generation that wants to continue dairying, despite the well-known physical hardships and financial struggles, as long as they can afford to stay in the business. Ashley Falls farmer Bob Kilmer, who farms with his two sons, says "There are definitely cheaper and easier places to make milk."
Farmers lucky enough to have children who want to keep the farm, hope that dairy farming will continue to be a viable Berkshire business in the future.
"People come here for the landscape but they don't always understand what's created that landscape," says Darrell Turner of Turner Farms in Egremont, who returned to the family farm after working as an engineer for a few years. In fact, some people choose to buy second homes for the pastoral beauty, but then turn against the dairy farms that created it, believing their practices are harmful to the environment.
There's distrust about what commercial farmers do and why they do it. As former Agricultural Commissioner Greg Watson says, "If these farms have been in operation for a century, we should be asking, 'What are they doing right?' instead of looking at them as anti-environment."
The Berkshires has the highest concentration of dairy farms in Massachusetts, but their future it uncertain. The numbers are slowly dwindling. Our dairy farmers aren't getting rich — it's a hard way of life with long hours of backbreaking work, unpredictable income, with a lot of risk. They stick to it out of determination and keeping family tradition alive despite all the odds.
"Farmers are stubborn and we keep farming because we want to carry on the tradition and we always hope things will get better for us," says Turner.
We are lucky there's a next generation of stubborn hard-working optimists who are willing to keep farming in the Berkshires. Dairy farmers can feel unappreciated or even under attack. We've lost our connection to these farms.
In the 1960s most Berkshire towns had at least a dozen dairy farms. Today, a town is lucky if there is one left. In the 1980s there were 14 dairy farms in Egremont. Now there is one. In 1972 there were 124 commercial dairy farms in Berkshire County — today 16 remain.
Massachusetts has stemmed the loss with the dairy tax credit program, instituted in 2008, to compensate farmers with a tax refund when the federal milk marketing order price falls below $15 per 100 pounds of milk, which is several dollars below the cost of production. This emergency relief has been triggered for the past 12 months. Without this program, Massachusetts would have many fewer dairy farms. New Hampshire, which lacks a tax credit, has lost many more farms than Massachusetts in recent years.
The Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers is calling for this program to become a permanent part of the tax code and for an increase to the budget of $2 million per year. This is a small price to pay to keep our farmers on the land, and as the Berkshires continue to gentrify, it's more important than ever that we support our dairy farmers, who are keeping our farming tradition alive.
Patience on roadway
Please appreciate your local dairy farm if you are lucky enough to still have one. If you're stuck behind a tractor on the road, instead of succumbing to road rage, chant "om" and be thankful they are still here working the landscape that you love. And if you smell manure as you drive by a farm, feel gratitude that they are enriching the soil.
Milk is a local food. Dairy farms are local businesses. It's easy to forget there's a connection between the tractor on the road and the butter on your toast.
Sarah Gardner is the producer of "Forgotten Farms," a new documentary film about traditional dairy farming in the age of kale and artisan cheese, and is the associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.