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Temps Give Overworked Vermont Farmers a Break - 2003-09-03

Dairy farms dot the landscape in the tiny northeastern state of Vermont. Most are small, family-owned operations and they play a vital role in the state's economy. But what happens when a farmer becomes sick or injured and can't milk the cows? For some farmers such a scenario can be disastrous. But as Nina Keck reports, a newly formed organization called the Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative is trying to provide farmers with some much-needed help.

Kevin Jewell and his wife Sandy milk over 65 cows and farm nearly 200 hectares in Shoreham, Vermont. They milk twice a day, seven days a week, and the hours add up.

"There's a total of about 180 animals around the farm to take care of so it's not a five-minute job of taking care of stuff," explained Mr. Jewell. "It takes time to get everyone fed and cleaned."

Kevin Jewell says he hadn't taken a day off in five years - until he got sick several months ago. He was hospitalized with viral meningitis and was out of work for weeks. Initially, his brother helped with the milking, but after two weeks he had to get back to his own job. A friend told the Jewell's about the Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative. Mrs. Jewell said that within a few days of calling, they had experienced workers to help with the chores.

"I can't say how much a load they took off," recalled Mrs. Jewell. "Because in my mind, at one point I was thinking that we were going to have to sell out here 'cause there's just no way I can do all of this and be with him."

The Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative was created by farmers who saw the need for quality, part time help. "A couple generations ago, everybody was farming and if somebody was hurt, the neighbors would pitch in," explained Rick LeVitre, a former dairy farmer who now works for the University of Vermont. "But now if you go down the road, there's a bigger and bigger distance between one farm to the next. Add to that, that people are not going into farming generation after generation. So Uncle Joe and Cousin Fred aren't there to help; we're further and further removed from agriculture."

Mr. LeVitre got the idea for the cooperative from a program he saw in Ireland. After he held a couple of meetings around the state to explain how it worked, a group of farmers decided to make it happen. A $25,000 grant from the state helped pay for start up costs and an administrator for the fledgling program. There was an immediate demand for the service. Temporary helpers worked more than 700 hours from January through June of this year. The biggest challenge, say organizers, is finding qualified people to do the work.

One of the most experienced part-time milkers in the program is Arlen Foote. The 74-year-old retired farmer no longer milks his own herd, but raises cows to sell to other dairies. He is one of about eight relief milkers in the cooperative. He's the oldest. The youngest is about 20. Most earn about $15 an hour.

"I want to do something, and it's nice to do it and not be tied down to it. You can do it when you want to. It's in your blood," laughed Mr. Foote. "Once you're a farmer you're always a farmer."

When his father and grandfather farmed, Mr. Foote says, there were plenty of neighbors to help in a crisis. But he says it's different now. The young people who are going into farming today aren't willing to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They want to be able to take vacations and have more time for their families. And he admits, he can't say he blames them.

Arlen Foote walks down the road from his barn to his house and gestures out across the fields. "It's too bad you know? Fifty years ago there was probably 35 to 40 farms here in the town of Cornwall. Now there's four. People have gone out of business. Farms are gone and houses come up. I just think that - that I hope that these small farms won't all go out. I really hate to see these big farms take over."

Asked if he thinks he's helping, by doing his temporary work, he agreed, "Yes, I do."

It's a sentiment echoed across the state, according to the University of Vermont's Rick LeVitre. "Everybody that you talk to on the street will tell you that we want our farms to stay," he said. "Most [residents] are removed from it. They've never done that work before. It's long hours, it's a way of life and it's a business. And if there's not somebody to come out to the farm for that day off, that vacation, that time when you get hurt and need someone to continue working on the business to keep it going, then some of our farmers are just going to say 'enough's enough,' and they'll stop farming." While there is demand for the Labor Service, organizers admit they'll need more money to stay in business. With state budgets tight, they've asked agricultural-related businesses in Vermont and farmers themselves for assistance. They say with today's low milk prices and the weak economy, small dairy farmers need all the help they can get.