A cow looms over a farm
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Money

How Small Farmers Are Fighting to Keep Vermont's Identity Alive

Not much says "America" more than the small dairy farm, and Vermont has spent decades selling that image. Increasingly, it's a relic of a bygone era.
February 10, 2020, 5:56pm

The words “GOT MILK?” adorn a big red barn on the side of Interstate 93, though the campaign the American dairy industry used to promote its product for years alongside pictures of celebrities with milk mustaches was replaced by “Milk Life” several years back. In Northern Vermont, the slogan survives in big white letters on the Gingue Farm. The highway ends soon after passing the barn—you either turn around and head south or continue north into Canada. There are small towns and pastoral church steeples along the road. The mountains rise with valleys of farmland settled between. Postcard Vermont.

The Gingue family settled here in Lower Waterford in the 1950s. Their dairy farm was passed down from one generation to the next, ever since Shawn Gingue’s great-grandfather crossed the Canadian border with his brother. Now, Shawn, 38, runs the farm with his father Paul. But it's no longer a dairy farm.

Shawn saw the hard truths of dairying firsthand on his own farm, which he started with his brother in 2008. When they went into business, it was the end of a boom turn for milk prices. They barely survived the bust years that came with the crash of the economy, enduring until 2015, when the breaking point hit. They could either continue fighting, try to grow and take on more debt, or get out. They got out. Shawn took a job in excavation, but he missed farming. He’d spend time whenever he could helping his dad.

“I didn't feel the purpose. I’ve always been growing an animal or producing a product for somebody that really enjoys it. Whether it was milk that didn't pay well or anything, I was still producing a product versus putting in a septic,” he said during a visit in September. “I just didn't feel as important or something.”

Shawn went back to the family farm with a new perspective and ideas, which included bringing the milking operation to the 21st century. But continually low milk prices and the costs of upgrades the farm needed to join the future were too much. After more than 50 years of dairying, the family ended the legacy during a meeting at the kitchen table. Today it’s not about livelihood. It’s if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.

Sonny Perdue, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, said as much at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin in early October. Wisconsin, like Vermont, is in the midst of a dairy crisis: The state has lost 1,654 farms since 2017. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out," he said. "I don’t think in America we, for any small business, have any guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

Today, the Gingue farm raises calves, houses heifers, and turns them into milkers by breeding them for a nearby farm. They charge a price per day to harbor animals. The farm has also diversified its crops, growing barley and winter wheat for a local malthouse. They seed for other farms and grow sweet corn to sell at their farmstead. Hemp, though, is the new thing in Vermont farming. The plants look like little Christmas trees from afar and have popped up on farms across the state, and the Gingue family has jumped at the opportunity to catch onto the CBD boom.

1581353816428-hemp

Photo by Kevin Koczwara.

Vermont once had a vast number of family dairy farms like the Gingue’s: In 1947 there were 11,206 in the state. It was never easy, but, as Paul told me when I visited, “you could make money doing dairy back in those days.”

From 1970 to 2006, 573,000 dairy farms closed in the United States, according to Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm, a 2012 book by Kirk Kardashian. New England alone lost at least two-thirds of its dairy farms. Vermont had 1,015 farms left in 2010, and that number continues to dwindle. As of the third quarter of 2019, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets had accounted for only 675 dairy farms in the state.

At the same time, the average size of farms has grown. The number of large farms (those that have more than 700 milking cows) has nearly doubled since 2011, while the number of cows has dropped by 11,0000, though the amount of milk made has stayed steady and even gone up in some years, due to a combination of breeding, feed, health and nutrition plans, air quality and pumping practices. The only way to compete is to get bigger and make more milk, and for Vermont farmers, that's difficult. It also goes against the idealistic image the state has created for itself—one of small, family-run farms hearkening back to a simpler time. Farms like the Gingue's, which by Vermont standards was pretty big, are forced to look elsewhere.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that right now, dairy farmers are in crisis. We are talking about hard-working dairy farmers losing their livelihoods, homes and their way of life,” Vermont senator and current hopeful future president Bernie Sanders said in a statement to VICE. “This is something happening all across rural America—small farmers of all backgrounds are finding it harder and harder to get by.”

When Shawn took over more responsibility in his family operation, he decided it was farming that he loved. In his excavator, he’d drift off thinking about the farm. He wants to raise his kids there. One of his younger brothers wants to get married in the old milking barn next summer. Now, for him and for his state, it’s about who is going to keep those daydreams alive.

A flood of milk

This ideal of Vermont might be highly salable, but maintaining it is an entirely different thing. Vermont land is great for raising cows, but less so for farming and feeding the mega-herds that thrive in the Midwest and California. The mountains, rocky soil, and a short crop-growing season means it’s generally more difficult and costly to farm in the Northeast. The land isn’t as forgiving or malleable, and the seasons have no regard for what anyone needs or wants.

The state’s fall into dairy farming happened in part because its proximity to New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia made it ideal for commerce. St. Albans, on the other side of the state from the Gingue farm, was once considered the butter capital of the world—in 1899 the creamery there produced 35 million pounds. But because of its small size, small population, and comparatively small output, Vermont has never had any power when it comes to negotiating the worth of its main commodity. As railroads arrived from the West, it lost even more of that bargaining power, and that, coupled with the advent of refrigerated cars, put Vermont farmers at more of a disadvantage.

1581352425334-Screen-Shot-2020-02-10-at-113312-AM

Some dairy farmers persisted, however, and now, the small-town farm in an already small state is part of the state’s marketing campaign to keep tourists coming. The state sells its rural landscape and down-to-earth approach as a break from the helter-skelter life of living in the city and suburbs in modern America. In Brattleboro in June, there is an event called the Strolling of the Heifers where local farms parade their cows through downtown. In Woodstock in July there’s a Cow Appreciation Day. In Southwest Vermont, the Deerfield Valley Transit Authority painted its community buses to look like cows—it's nicknamed the MOOver. Then there’s Ben & Jerry’s, the iconic ice cream maker in Waterbury, which has become synonymous with not only rich and creamy ice cream but also ethical and local food practices that included buying milk from local farms and donating seven percent of its profits to charities. When the company was bought by Unilever in 2000, it made sure the deal kept its factory in Vermont and kept using Vermont milk to make its premium ice cream, securing its identity.

Vermont equals milk, and its cows produce more milk than ever, so much so that they're flooding an already overflowing market—all at a time when Americans are drinking less. According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Americans are drinking 18 gallons of milk a year, which is 12 gallons less than people drank in 1970. Back then, people routinely drank two to three glasses of milk a day thanks to marketing campaigns that touted its nutritional value. As alternative “milks”—like almond, soy, coconut, cashew and now oat—have grown in popularity and eating habits have changed, the desire to drink milk has waned. But as the adage in dairy farming goes: When prices are high make more milk; when prices are low, make more milk.

Franklin County

When I call Bill Rowell and tell him I’m close to his farm, he asks me if I’ve ever ridden in an 18-wheeler. Upon arrival, I'm greeted by Rowell, dressed in khaki pants, loafers, and a pair of plaid button-up shirts on top of one another. We hop in his truck and drive to the back of the farm, where an idling tractor-trailer awaits. He has to pick up some feed he bought at auction from an old farm that went bust a few towns away. It’s a 45 minute drive along winding Vermont roads, the truck roaring and rattling up each hill, the wind howling outside the windows; on the way, we pass a house with a large middle finger statue in its front yard. The feed needs to be moved that day and Rowell, who has also owned a trucking company for 30 years, will do it himself.

Rowell grew up on a dairy farm in Albany, Vermont . He started helping clean up the barn when he was four or five years old, and by the time he was six or seven he'd graduated to helping milk cows. His father, though, decided he wasn’t going to leave the farm to any of his six children.

“My dad said, 'If any of you guys want the farm you have to put yourself on the farm. I am not going to be responsible for putting someone on the farm,’” Rowell recalled.

It’s difficult work, and for Rowell’s family, that meant his father had to leave the farm for stretches when prices dropped, to work on gas or oil pipelines in New England and the Midwest. His mother would run the farm and raise their six children. Rowell entered the Navy after high school and worked as an air traffic controller on an aircraft carrier. He and his younger brother Brian opened the dairy farm in Sheldon in 1985. The farm has 1,500 animals, including 932 milkers when I visited—small compared to the 2,000 plus cow farms out west.

Rowell has become a voice of resistance for dairy farmers in Vermont. He’s worked with both the state and federal legislature in fighting for farmers’ rights in Vermont, and been a vocal leader of his local co-op. Co-ops work with dairy farmers to get their milk to market, whether it be as fluid milk or cheese, ice cream, yogurt, sour cream, or as dried milk. Co-ops control the market in many ways. They decide how much milk to pick up and sell and work with farmers to (supposedly) get them a fair price for their milk. They were created in the early 1900s as a way to give farmers a streamlined way to get milk into consumers’ hands while preventing farms from competing against one another.

As a long-time member of St. Albans Co-Op, which purchases milk from Vermont farmers and moves it through processors, packaging, and into stores, Rowell spoke up when Dairy Farmers of America, the biggest dairy co-op in America, took control. Rowell wanted to know what DFA’s plan would look like for milk production and pricing. DFA controls one-third of the dairy farms in America. The St. Albans co-op has been a member cooperative of DFA since 2003, but in June its board voted to be taken over by DFA, and not try to battle with the weight DFA has across the United States and on the global market. Rowell wanted to know what DFA was going to do to help farmers in Vermont compete, as well as prevent milk prices from cratering again.

1581351126813-Rowell

Bill Rowell. Photo by Kevin Koczwara.

One way to do that is to control the amount of milk pumped at each farm, which is called a management tool—basically controlling the supply and forcing the demand to go up and the price to follow. Rowell wanted to see if DFA would implement such a plan in Vermont because he believes it will help keep farms from going bust while stabilizing milk prices.

“I got up and asked DFA about a management tool during the merger,” Rowell said. “I said, ‘You guys have a management tool going on in two of your regions and there is no reason that you should come to us, the farmer, and say we don't have enough market for your milk, we have to dump milk. At whose expense does that come? It comes at the farmer's expense. So if you're actual leaders you're going to run this co-op the way it is supposed to be run. You're not going to put your members out of business, are you?”

According to Brad Keating, the senior vice president and COO for DFA’s Northeast Area, DFA will implement a pricing tool starting in March 2020 that monitors the growth and fluid milk output of farms.

“All this does is basically say to the farmers, ‘If you're going to grow in this period and you're going to make more milk and there is a cost to dealing with that surplus milk, then you should take that cost rather than have the pool of co-op farmers pay it,’” Keating said.

Milk pricing is a long and convoluted process. I’ve spent months reporting on the dairy industry and I’m still confused as to how and why it’s done the way it is. There’s no easy answer or explanation. Current pricing systems date back to the Great Depression and the creation of the federal milk marketing order, which went through two iterations before being settled in 1937 as part of the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act. In Milk Money, Kardashian takes an entire chapter of his book to explain it, but the gist is that milk prices are set by the market and generally go by supply-and-demand but through a circumventive route that has little regard for the costs of doing business in a region or the demand by a specific area, and because of that, the price is almost always lower than it could or should be.

1581352482380-Screen-Shot-2020-02-10-at-113408-AM

In addition to this, there is also the Agricultural Act of 1949, which set up a program to buy surplus milk, giving farmers a guaranteed price for said milk. The government holds onto that milk until the price rises again. Essentially, someone is sitting at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and seeing how much milk moves for on the market. Then, a price is set and someone with a calculator somewhere else uses a complex equation that only makes sense to a few people on how much money farmers will get for fluid milk. That price is what processors and bottlers pay cooperatives, which then distribute the money to their members.

This is where DFA gets into trouble. DFA is responsible for a third of the milk produced in America, and it’s supposed to do well by its huge membership and get the best prices for their hard work. DFA, though, has invested heavily in Dean Foods, which was purchased by Suiza Foods in 2001. Suiza had become a giant milk processing company in America when, according to Milk Money, Gregg Engels, the former chairman and CEO of Dean Foods, bought the Suiza processing plant in Puerto Rico. Suiza proceeded to buy up more plants and other processors, and Dean Foods quickly became the second biggest milk processor in America. DFA wanted that business, so it purchased a portion of Suiza and in the process became its only milk supplier. In short, DFA became intrinsically linked to the success of Dean Foods. While farmers only got paid for their commodity, shareholders at Dean and DFA got paid for the final milk products, which came from the processing plants, as well as for the milk that farmers brought to the co-op.

(“If there is profitability at the end of the year, the board of directors will look at that profitability and make decisions to allocate some back to the farmers or to make another acquisition to continue to find markets for the milk,” Keating said. “But the profits end up back in the hands of the members that own the cooperative.”)

On November 13, Dean Foods filed for bankruptcy; reports suggest DFA could be in line to purchase Dean, a move that has caught the attention of antitrust regulators. Both Dean and DFA acknowledged an interest in DFA acquiring some, if not all of Dean’s assets. Dean described any claim that they and DFA collude to keep milk prices low as “factually inaccurate, unsubstantiated, and nonsensical.”

1581351156780-unknown

Photo by Kevin Koczwara.

In 2016, DFA was sued for its actions in Vermont by some local farmers. A $50 million settlement was reached, but 115 farmers in the Northeast rejected the settlement and allege that DFA and its marketing arm, Dairy Marketing Services, violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and conspired to monopolize the fluid milk market by having agreements with other co-ops to keep milk prices low. The battle is going to a jury trial in July 2020 at a U.S. District Court. Senator Sanders wants Congress to get involved to try and break the hold that consolidation has created over the market.

“Dairy farmers, like all farmers, are also dealing with increasing corporate consolidation. Washington has to get serious about attacking the agricultural monopolies that are destroying rural economies, harming our rivers and drinking water, and ripping off consumers,” he said. “We need aggressive trust-busting to break up the corporate concentration of the dairy industry, and stop new mergers of agribusiness corporations.”

Gary Genke, a dairy farmer as well as a dairy farm Certified Personal Accountant, is also in the process of suing DFA. He alleges what others have before: that it's using its subsidiary companies—the producers—to make a profit off of the low milk prices that it keeps in place even though they can raise prices through intervention if they wanted to. Lower milk prices means that the processors and marketers pay the farmer less for more of the work and risk while processing and marketing take the remaining chunk of cash without having to raise, milk or take care of cows, Genke claims.

“They say the farmer is the last one to get paid,” Rowell said. “The farmer gets what’s left. If there isn't anything left, that's what the farmer gets.”

America is supposed to be the land of endless bounty. But in truth, its story is about the market and consumers taking what they perceive is rightfully theirs, while farmers are left with scraps. As settlers stretched west, they acquired larger swaths of land and planted more and more crops. With that, an economy was built around inexpensive food. Consumers had endless options and prices reflected that, as farmers got less and less of the share, unless they got so big they controlled the market themselves. Pretty soon, as Rowell sees it, this will keep happening and then, at some point, farmers will stand up, or the corporations that own all the farms will command pricing. Farmers hold more power over the prices and the market than they know, though. It’s about using it. Someday, there will be a reckoning where there will only be a few farms left and we will only have a few choices or the farmers will decide to get what is theirs and put the rest of us, so dependent on their labor, out to pay what is due or put us out pasture to fend for ourselves. It’s a dangerous prospect, but it’s not that different from what we see in the tech sector.

Rowell and his brother aren’t putting any pressure on anyone to take over the farm they built. And although he’s 66, Rowell isn’t looking to retire, yet. He likes the work of keeping the farm up and advocating for farmers in Vermont. He’s been part of committees and boards and elected into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame. For now, it looks like his niece and nephew are in line to take over, but they’re still young and need the seasoning that comes with working on a farm.

“It will be their choice as to whether or not they want to work on the farm, be a farmer,” Rowell said. “The question is: Is there something to look forward to? The way of life in itself is something to look forward to, but to be profitable doing it makes it more enticing, doesn't it?"

The Northeast Kingdom

Mateo Kehler looks like he fell out of the grunge age and settled in Vermont. He has long, windswept hair, a flannel shirt unbuttoned a bit to expose his t-shirt, boots and a chiseled face that looks like a rugged version of Fabio. Kehler has agreed to meet me in Greensboro and introduce me to the past and future of dairy farming in the Northeast Kingdom. He is, along with his brother, one of the owners of the world renowned Cellars at Jasper Hill. He sees the struggles of commercial dairy farmers across Vermont, but as one of the people behind Jasper Hill, he’s set out to change the market for local farmers. He sees opportunity and beauty in the dairy farms of Vermont, but understands they need tending and help to keep them alive. They need their own form of “disruption,” which Jasper Hill has done by looking to the past instead of the future by making cheese using traditional methods.

The pair started Jasper Hill in 2003 after buying a small, beaten-down farm in Greensboro, and have since gained recognition as one of the world’s finest cheesemakers. They focus on raw milk and cave-aged cheeses that look back to old world ways. In the process, the brothers have created a network of farms in the Northeast Kingdom that supply Jasper Hill with the quality milk their cheese needs. Jasper Hill owns and milks its own herds, but Kehler would rather not be farming. Instead, he spends his time focused on working with local dairy farmers. The only reason Jasper Hill owns any farms is because they can’t get enough of the specific milk they desire to make the kinds of cheese they make.

For raw-milk cheese, Jasper Hill requires farmers to only feed their cows dry hay. No feed. No corn. No silage or haylage, the dried and fermented feed that most farmers rely on. The practice is more expensive and takes more time, but to make raw-milk cheese, the milk needs to hit certain standards, and the only way to meet those lofty goals is to feed cows a strict diet. Jasper Hill owns a hay-drying facility and employs Ellie Searles, whom we met on a dirt road in-between farms. She was organizing a day of mowing and driving between fields. When we passed her, Kehler stopped the car and backed up to meet her on the side of the road.

Searles grew up in Lowell, Vermont and studied diversified agriculture in college. It’s her job to tell the farmers when to cut and bail hay and how to do it. She sees the issues and the closing farms, but she’s not as doom and gloom about the situation as I am. Vermont, for all of its history, has been about finding a way to live in the mountains, to survive cold and harsh winters, and to work as a community.

“I think there's opportunities to continue that tradition. Grazing animals or feeding them for just that we can grow here and then adding value to milk on farm or in a hyperlocal community, and then making a living,” Searles says. “So I don't think it's totally dismal.”

Back with Kehler we drove to meet Nathan Hunnewell, a 29-year-old farmer Kehler thinks is the future of dairying in Vermont. When we arrive, Hunnewell is moving feed in one of the concrete bunkers that are now used to house forages for cows instead of the large metal silos that came into prominence in the 1980s. Hunnewell started working on dairy farms while attending to Keane State in New Hampshire and he has never left. He opened his own farm after college but experienced the struggles of running a small dairy operation in Vermont against the world and left it. After that, Hunnewell briefly worked for Jasper Hill before going on sojourn across America, working on every type and size of farm imaginable.

1581351181323-mateo

Tom Hill, Alex Armstrong, and Mateo Kehler. Photo by Kevin Koczwara.

He's since returned, and runs this dairy operation for Kehler with no regrets. His hair wild in tangled curls that sit high on his head, a light goatee marks his face and sparkles when some water from his gallon jug lands on it. Kehler wants Hunnewell to take over the farm that he runs and become a partner, but Hunnewell is worried. He’s run his own farm before and it was trying. He enjoys the farm work. He enjoys the company of the cows and the feeling it gives him. But he isn’t sure about owning one of his own. There’s too much liability in that kind of proposition. He’s seen the megafarms out west and decided he wanted to live here, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, making just enough money to enjoy his life, his work, and his cows.

“I think to be good at it, or the people who are good at it, have a lot of empathy,” Hunnewell says. “I've worked on some successful farms and I've been around some not so successful farms, and all the good ones—you know, dairy doesn't always have a great reputation—but all the good ones the cows are really well taken care of.

Our next stop is a big farm, one that isn’t part of Jasper Hill’s network, but one that he’s helping to help grow into its next stage. We drive to West Glover to meet the “downtown cows” at Merle Young's farm. It’s located across the street from the town’s important general store and pizza shop, Parker Pie. Young’s family has owned this farm for “some 80 odd years.” It was started by his great-grandfather, and now has 780 cows but no real room or plans to expand the herd.

Young sells his fluid milk to St. Albans, but with the help of Kehler, instead of adding more cows and building more barns or buying more pasture land, he built a brand-new cheesemaking facility. The decision was made to get off the treadmill of having to get bigger, take on more debt and then get bigger again to pay off that debt and meet the demands of the market.

“I think, ultimately, this is what the future of dairying, in this part of Vermont anyway, is gonna look like," Kehler says. “There isn't the land base to support a 2000-cow dairy.”

Young wants to see his family farm continue by bringing what people keep telling me is a “value added” product. Instead of dealing only in fluid milk, which is volatile, he hopes starting a cheese operation that uses 25 percent of his milk to make cheese can stabilize the business, insulating it from market pressures. It makes sense, but it’s also difficult in a global market. Cheese moves around the globe and it can be difficult to stand out. But, with the help of Kehler and Jasper Hill, the plan has a solid beginning and backbone. Jasper Hill found its niche and created its market. Young wants to try and do the same thing, because the thing that has often made Vermont products special—besides craftsmanship, attention to detail and personal feel—is that Vermont looks like the kind of place you want to get your food from. It’s made itself synonymous with quality, and created an idyllic image that sells.

“When you picture where you want your food to come from—and more people have more access to information like this these days—and when you take in this area, this is where I'd want my food to come from. I mean, it's beautiful,” Young says. “The fields, there is the perfect diversity. When you put a drone over this site, it’s not a mega farm; there's a lake right next door, there's houses all around. That's a role model for what people think Vermont looks like.”

1581351204722-hayfield

Tom HIll's hayfield. Photo by Kevin Koczwara.

Kehler and his family were enchanted by this place, too. He started coming to Greensboro as a child, visiting his grandparents at the family lake house, returning for good as an adult, once he and his brother had saved enough money to buy the farm at Jasper Hill. It was dilapidated and run down. They rebuilt it and built a cheese cave, with Kehler learning cheesemaking in Europe and his brother raising the first cows. This is the only place they wanted to do it. The dream was to create a new economic support system here, “in the geographic middle of nowhere.”

“The way we think about our businesses is that we built a pipeline to parts of the country and the world where there is disposable income. Cash. We put high value products into that pipeline, and we suck cash out and redistribute it in a way that commodity markets can't, won't, don't. Right? So this is part of the redistribution markets,” Kehler tells me.

When the current generation, the boomers and Gen-X’ers, decide it’s time to retire, there will be no one to carry on the tradition. People like Hunnewell are the perfect candidates to keep running the traditional farms—they have the desire and skills to run a farm—but are either uneasy about the debt and struggles or can’t find the funding and land to do it. There’s just not a consistent enough flow of cash to make this all worth it anymore. If the family farms of the past can’t find someone to take over or to pass it on to debt free, then the land will most likely be sold to another farm or broken up as plots of land for something else.

On our last stop, Kehler introduced me to Tom Hill, who was out bailing hay with Alex Armstrong. Hill’s family founded Greensboro and he’s only known dairy farming. Hill stood against his red truck in a cut sleeve tank top watching Armstrong operate the hay bailer and I asked him what makes Vermont farmers different. I wanted to know why they wanted to stay here and fight for their livelihood and way of life when so much of it has changed across the world.

“I think Vermont farmers aren't like most. We’re just happy with what we got,” Hill says. He points to the mountains and lush fields, the sky above us is a radiant blue with warm rays of sun beating down. “We have this. Who else has this? Seriously. No one bothering us. People come up here from the city and they can't believe they can walk on this land. ‘This isn't my land.’ They can walk on this land. You can walk up there, of course you can walk up there. No one cares where you go up here. That's the biggest difference.”

"Gentle handling makes better milk."

Amy Huyffer and her husband Earl own Strafford Organic Creamery, an organic dairy farm in Stafford, Vermont. The mailbox at the end of the long dirt driveway says “Rock Bottom Farm.” There’s a small orchard at the end of the driveway. There’s chickens running around, dogs out and about, teenage boys driving tractors. The cows, guernseys, roam in the pasture, munching and looking happy. The farm is uneven, built into the rolling hills, divided into sections by small electric fences that look like a toddler could knock it over. Down the road, it’s the perfect postcard New England town.

Strafford Organic doesn’t sell its milk to a creamery. Instead, it packages and sells its milk directly to stores and customers. They make yogurt and ice cream as well. It’s not easier to sell milk this way, but, if a farmer can solve the logistical issues of getting milk to the market and not get pushed out by bigger competitors, it’s one way to insulate the farm from milk price fluctuations. Of course, this isn’t easy. There’s more equipment, more employees, more regulations that need to be followed and still only pennies on the dollar to be made. The creamery is built into the hillside so the fresh milk travels from the pumping room to the processing tanks via gravity instead of pumps. It’s beautifully simple.

1581351225491-strafford

Strafford Organic Creamery. Photo by Kevin Koczwara.

“There's only a couple pumps in the whole place, which is one of the reasons why our milk is so good,” Huyffer says. “It gets really gentle handling and gentle handling makes better milk.”

The space is tight and ramshackle. In its previous life this was a farming commune. Earl grew up here, and it became a dairy farm when he was six. After college he returned to start his own farm. He started with beef and bought a dairy herd in 1996, and met Huyffer two years later while she was in law school at a “local watering hole.” After graduating, she decided the farming life was for her, and the couple have raised three boys here.

“Earl and I talk about this all the time, but we could do plenty of other things. Now, anything we did would make more money,” Huyffer says. “I mean, I have a law degree. I've been managing a business for 20 years. We would be just fine. But we have a lot of identity wrapped up in this. This is what I want to do. It's how I want to raise my kids. I don't always want to get out of bed at four in the morning. I'm always happy when I'm here.”

Comparatively, Stafford is a young farm. Up the road, a family farm that had been in operation since 1801, when the town was incorporated, recently sold its cows and stopped dairying. When Huyffer moved here, there were eight dairies in town. Now there are three, including them. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to give up and do something else.

“If Earl and I split shifts at a convenience store, we'd be doing better than all of this,” Huyffer says. “At the end of the day, if we made minimum wage, that would be awesome.”

We walked out in the pasture to meet the cows. Guernseys came from the isle of Guernsey in the English Channel and are known for their docile personalities and golden-hued milk that makes the brightest butter. The cows are enjoying some final warmth before the long winter comes. As we find a spot to talk, they start to encroach on us. Huyffer knows their names and their personalities. As they get closer, they start to lick my arm and my camera bag. The flies swarm around their eyes and tails. Soon the bugs will be gone and the cows will move into to barn. For now, they want to enjoy the freedom and the fresh grass. As we stand there, I ask Heifer what the future of Vermont dairy farming looks like.

“Wake up at four and milk the cows,” she says. “Same as it's ever been.”

That’s the only way to look at the crisis in front of her. The struggles are real and immediate. The cows need to be milked. They don’t stop producing because the economy has gone to shit. They don’t stop eating because the budget has gotten a little tighter. Vermont, like America and the world, continues to change. A rural state built on small family farms has begun to shift towards fewer but bigger farms. The once staunchly conservative state has become associated with the bastion of socialism in the modern age. Some have left the Sysiphian cycle, yes, but often not because they chose to. Vermont and dairy farming are intertwined in both its inward and outward facing identities.

Vermonters have had to battle their entire lives. The state was once largely empty of humans and then clear cut to make room for struggling settlers who searched for something new, but that grew back into something both old and new—the green forests returned. The state has always been small and been about survival. It’s always struggled with its identity since French fur traders and British colonists moved in—it’s name is a bastardization of Green Mountains in French. And that survival attitude has kept it alive.

The dairy farms have never been successful, but about identity and a way of life. It’s about living in the Green Mountains and not on or with them. While the world and the industry may collapse around them, Vermont will keep fighting until it can’t anymore. While most people would give in and give up, it’s the likes of Huyffer and other farmers who can’t dream of doing anything else, even if it means endless struggles.

I think back to what Tom Hill said about his family not noticing the Great Depression. It’s a mindset: The outside world may be crumbling and the industry may be collapsing, but it’s always been that way. It’s always been about going against the odds.

But someday, that attitude will have to change because the world itself continues to change. Farmers will inevitably be left behind if the system doesn’t protect them and their livelihood. I don’t know if there are any other answers than to keep pushing forward. To keep the tradition alive by welcoming in the next generation, finally standing up to the likes of DFA and bigger farms pushing milk prices to untenable lows. To educate the public on the value of milk and good cheese and getting those with disposable income to spend it on something of value, like milk from the Green Mountains sourced in an ethical and honest way.

Before I leave, Huyffer gives me a small glass jar of chocolate milk. The milk is deep, rich and creamy. It’s better than anything I’ve ever had from the grocery store. It’s earthy and golden tasting with a beautiful and rich chocolate from cocoa powder and sugar. It’s gone before I start my car.

Follow Kevin Koczwara on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.