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As Big Milk Moves In, Family-Owned U.S. Dairy Farms Rapidly Fold

David Fuller has been a dairy farmer since 1977. He gets about the same amount of money for milk these days he did when he started.

In Weathersfield, Vt., a town once dotted with small milking farms, about 60 cows peacefully chew hay at their home on Fuller Farm. They are the last remaining dairy herd in Weathersfield, and they'll be auctioned off this week. This is a growing trend in the changing dairy industry — in the state and beyond.

David Fuller has been a dairy farmer here since 1977. He says it's the life he's loved since he was a small child. He says when he was a kid, his mom couldn't figure out why he and his brother were throwing up grass. "She let us go out ... and there we were under the picnic table eating grass," he says. "She said, 'Why are you doing this?' and I told her, 'I just want to be a cow!' " he laughs.

He continues: "How fun is that ... and look where it got me!"

Years later, Fuller says there is no longer enough money in running a small dairy farm.

He says his children have their own careers and they don't see a future in dairy farming. "I think that the kids that grew up on small farms hear their parents always struggling with money," he says. "I think they all ask themselves, 'Why do I want to do that?' So there wasn't a transition to go to the family."

That's the case with a lot of dairy farms in Vermont.

Just a couple years ago, Weathersfield, which has a population of about 3,000, had about 10 dairy farms. "They were all small farms, and they all went the same way. Either a family member didn't want to continue or there were economic reasons," Fuller says.

In 2010, Vermont had more than 1,000 dairy farms, but by the end of last year there were just more than 800. According to a national census by the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1950 there were about 3.5 million farms with milking cows. By 2012, that number had plummeted to 58,000.

Fuller says milk prices aren't enough to sustain business these days. He gets about the same amount of money for his product as he did when he started about 40 years ago, while the cost of living has skyrocketed.

"When I started milking, my first check came from a company called Yankee Milk – that was $14 [per hundredweight of milk] in 1977 in May," he says, looking over his cows. "This last month, on the first check that we got for pay for our milk, they estimate the cost at $15.50."

Diane Bothfeld, director of administrative services at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, says the prices of milk used to be based on national trends.

That has changed.

"Now, it's global," she says. "What's happening in China, what's happening in Australia and New Zealand. 'Oh, the European Union did this' — it is just global pressures on the prices for milk."

But Bothfeld says dairy products are still Vermont's largest agricultural receipts.

In a 2014 study on the economic impact of cows in the state, it was found that for every one cow, about $12,000 was added to the state economy.

"[For every cow that leaves the state] there will be fewer trips to the hardware store or the feed store, or the tractor dealership doesn't get as much business," Bothfeld says. "So it really does have an impact throughout the community."

Peter Vitaliano, chief economist for the National Milk Producers Federation, says the number of small family-owned dairies around the United States has been steadily dropping for years. "Since 1986, every year that number has dropped by between 5 and around 9 percent," he says.

However, milk production is not necessarily decreasing. While the dairy industry used to be run by individual families, Vitaliano thinks that today it is far more lucrative to run large-scale dairy farms, with 500 cows or more.

"In the U.S. more and more milk is being produced every year," Vitaliano says. "If there are fewer farms and more milk, guess what? [That] means that the average farm is getting bigger — and that is indeed the case."

In 2012, the most recent year the USDA collected data, almost three-quarters of dairy farms had fewer than 100 cows, but those farms only produced about 14 percent of the nation's milk.

Vitaliano is optimistic about milk production and prices in the year to come, but like others, sees that the business model of the American dairy farm is changing rapidly.

Copyright 2017 Vermont Public Radio. To see more, visit Vermont Public Radio.

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