When we tell people we’re making a film about dairy farming in Massachusetts, a common response is a sigh with a defeated shake of the head and the refrain, “dairy is a dying industry.” It’s easy to understand that view because so many farms have been lost. Our food system is global now. Economies of scale have won out; it can be cheaper to ship milk long distances than to produce it locally. Why prop-up an industry if it can’t make it on its own? The local organic food movement has other reasons to happily write conventional dairy’s elegy: they use chemicals on feed crops, they medicate sick cows, and they use big fuel-sucking tractors. Still others consider milk to be a product of the industrial food system and favor raw milk straight from the cow and right off the farm. Arguments on all sides of the spectrum—from believers in laissez faire agricultural economics to those who favor a small-scale sustainable food system—justify the loss of the region’s dairy farms.
We believe dairy farming in New England remains critically important to our agricultural economy and our farming future. It is neither a dying industry nor an irrelevant one. They continue to be among the most successful commercial farms. The region’s lands and soils are well-suited to growing grass and cows, and milk is our most abundant farm product. Dairy farmers are the stewards of our farmland and hold the key to a regional food system. Their struggles are a result of unfair national milk pricing and the cheap food economy that benefits huge farms and relies on fossil fuels for shipping food cross country. Fortunately, our remaining dairy farmers are persistent, passionate, and resilient people who continue farming despite the financial hardships. There is a younger generation of dairy farmers who want to take up the mantle, but they are wary of the financial uncertainties.
There is much to applaud about the local food movement, but it serves mainly an elite population who can afford niche products. Conventional dairy farmers produce a staple food for all of the people. Local food accounts for a tiny fraction of food consumed in New England: Vermont is doing the best and locally sourced food accounts for up to 5 percent of food consumed.
There’s a long way to go toward feeding the population. But New England supplies more of our own dairy needs than any other farm product and there’s a potential to reach for dairy sufficiency. This means improving the situation of dairy farmers, holding on to our farmland, and increasing profitability so farmers are not living under the stress of financial insecurity. A local food system depends on the continued viability of our dairy farms: our film acknowledges their importance and calls attention to their situation.
When we sit down and talk with older farmers we hear that they grew up in a near total local food economy. Just a few generations ago, most people in rural New England lived on a farm, raised their own pigs and chickens, grew their own vegetables and bought milk and butter from a local dairy. Today, there’s a push to re-create local food systems. But we don’t have to look beyond our older farmers to learn how this worked in their lifetimes. Learning about the past is a fascinating aspect of this project. It leads us to the realization that a revitalized local food system is possible, but it will take a lot of time and dedication to increase production and replace national supply chains or order to feed the region. Some of our older dairy farmers remember a robust local food system – they were a central part of it – and they’re more than happy to talk about it, but rarely are they asked. This film asks.
‘Dairy farming is the foundation of our agricultural economy.’