By Mark Winne
(an edited version of this piece appeared in the Hartford Courant – July 5, 2009)
Willie Nelson was recently quoted as saying, “Dairy farmers are among the hardest workers I know.” Having hung around with a couple of dozen Connecticut dairy farmers off and on for 25 years, I’m inclined to agree with him. Cows are milked two or three times a day, 365 days a year. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas, your birthday, or 10 degrees below zero. They don’t ever give you a day off.
While hard work might earn dairy farmers a better place in heaven, it hasn’t earned them much else. According to figures compiled by Robert Wellington, the chief economist for the dairy co-op, Agri-Mark, Connecticut dairy farmers have made a profit in only 9 of the past 76 months. That’s probably why the state only has 157 dairy farms left – down from 663 in 1980 – and why the Connecticut legislature passed a short term dairy bail-out bill this past session.
But sitting in the boardroom of The Farmers Cow office in Lebanon, one gets a more optimistic impression. Maybe it’s the 300 multi-colored push-pins stuck in a Connecticut map marking the stores that carry this locally branded milk. Or maybe it’s the hand made table fashioned from beautifully finished cedar planks salvaged from a tumbled down grain silo. Whatever it is, you feel like this could be the end of the dairyman blues that have been sung in these parts for far too long.
Robin Chesmer is one of six state dairy farmers who make up The Farmers Cow, LLC. He’s bearded, bespectacled and stout enough to throw and pin a 1200 pound heifer in less than 30 seconds. Not that he would of course. He simply loves his cows too much to ever get rough with them. Chesmer, who with his son Lincoln own the 700-acre Graywall Farm, explains at some length how attentive they are to the cows’ diet, comfort and happiness. “A cow’s utter is a giant fermentation vat with lots of delicate bacterial flora. You have to give her just the right ratio of grass, protein, and energy.” And sounding a bit like an over-indulgent parent, Chesmer adds that “cows need 19 hours a day to do their own thing. They need to be stress-free.” Like all six of his fellow dairypersons, he says you will find neither bovine growth hormones (rBGH) nor antibiotics in The Farmers Cow milk.
But as the Beatles said, “Your lovin’ gives me a thrill, but your lovin’ don’t pay my bills.” For all his compassionate husbandry and careful land stewardship, the prices he receives for his milk are determined by the federal milk marketing order, one of the more arcane forms of economic wizardry ever developed by a civilized society. In New England, where the cost of producing milk runs from $18 to $20 per hundred pounds, the farmer is currently receiving only about $13.
“We decided to go ahead with The Farmers Cow in 2004 because we’re in the middle of the one of the largest consumer markets in the world, but we couldn’t take advantage of that because we had a faceless product,” said Chesmer referring to the fact that his milk and that of nearly every other New England farmer gets dumped into one undifferentiated regional pool. Graywall Farm, in cooperation with Maple Leaf Farm (Hebron), Cushman Farm (North Franklin), Fairvue Farm (Woodstock), Hytone Farm (Coventry), and Fort Hill Farm (Thompson), collects only their milk in one place. Together, they printed their own milk cartons, created some impressive graphics, and even wrote their own song (though not a Grammy winner, you can hear it at www.thefarmerscow.com). Their milk is now available at small stores and big stores alike, including Stop and Shop, Big Y, and Shaw’s.
That a commodity like milk could establish a commercial scale local identity is just one more symptom of locavore-itis, that near feverish condition afflicting ever growing numbers of people who grave a more intimate relationship with their food. And Chesmer and his colleagues share a great deal of culpability for feeding that frenzy. All six farmers and their families have a non-stop schedule of appearances in stores, at farmers’ markets and festivals around the state to promote their product and educate consumers about cows and farming. “We had a farm tour at Nate Cushman’s dairy that drew 600 people,” he tells me in disbelief.
While The Farmers Cow is a dynamic enterprise that gives the consumer a direct connection to Connecticut’s farms, it’s still not out of the financial woods. The recession has hurt sales because struggling consumers are buying more of the slightly less expensive regional brands. Revenues must be plowed back into the business, postponing any immediate benefit to the farmers. And even though other farmers are clamoring to join The Farmers Cow, there is still excess capacity among the current six.
Outside of the The Farmers Cow’s office window is a landscape to die for – rolling pastures, gently swelling hills and a barn or two are all that you see. Losing this open and productive land is ultimately what’s at stake. Giving the state’s remaining dairy farmers a chance to make a decent living is also on the line. And satisfying the innate human desire to touch that which feeds us is crying to be met. If The Farmers Cow isn’t a big part of the answer, we better find something that is pretty soon.