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Dairy Farming is Dwindling in New England

Dairy farming has long been one the largest sectors of the New England region's rural economy and one of the nation's most highly subsidized industries. Still, many small family-run dairy farms have failed in recent years. Those that have managed to survive - sometimes just barely - have done so with a mix of technology and determination.

"Kuh Bahs! Kuh Bahs!" As Jacob Mills, 10, calls the family cows in from the meadows for their twilight milking, he knows that that call, or something very much like it, has been heard on this 161 hectare farm ever since his ancestor bought the Vermont land in 1839. While Jacob guides the cows into their stalls, he explains that he may want to become a farmer himself. "I like to be out in nature more than in a house. You get to do a lot of stuff, like clean the barn, bale the hay, stack hay."

And, of course, you've got to know cows. With a sure and gentle hand, Jacob attaches the cows' teats to metal suction devices that convey their milk through a pipeline and into a shiny steel tank in one of the side rooms.

Meanwhile, in the sprawling white farmhouse next door, Catherine Beatty, 84, Jacob's grandmother and the matriarch of this clan, is setting out a huge homemade meal of ham, corn, milk, biscuits, macaroni, fresh fruit pie and coffee. Ms. Beatty notes that there have been mouths to feed on this farm ever since it opened, but that almost everything else has changed.

"Just technology and advancement and better breeding, better cattle," she says. "When they first came on this farm they probably made butter. I know they did. And then we started shipping milk and then it was in cans, and now it's the bulk tank. And that's the way things change." Ms. Beatty says that, nostalgia aside; today's milk products are better. "It's cooled quicker, and it isn't exposed to the air, because it goes directly into the pipeline."

Beatty's extended family is seated at the dinner table. Beatty's daughter Gilly passes some corn, and says that she feels strongly about the farming life. "I think it's something in your blood. Agriculture is very important for our world. If you don't have good agriculture, how are we going to feed our people?"

Gilly remembers what a close-knit farming community this once was. She especially recalls the annual acorn roast with a bonfire every year on Diamond Hill behind the house.

"Sometimes we've had like 30 people, and sometimes we've had as many as a couple of hundred, one time. Just anyone who wants to come can come." She motions to the west. "There used to be on the next hill over an old elm tree that you used to see from all over town. My grandfather would say if you could see the elm tree then you'd never be lost. But that died with the Dutch Elm disease that I guess struck all the elm trees."

Most of the dairy farms that once lay in the valleys below that elm mostly disappeared as well. Back in 1950, there were 40 or 50 in the township. Today, there are eight.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is hard for a small dairy farmer to compete with the larger factory farms. Also, the once abundant farmland of Vermont is being sold off - mostly to development for housing, and that's dramatically raising taxes for the farmers who want to stay. Both Catherine Beatty and her sister Alice Hafner regret those trends.

"It'll be all houses. Instead of cattle in the field, it'll be houses," warns Ms. Beatty. "I hate to see what is happening to Vermont because we are losing a lot of the beauty of this state," adds Ms. Hafner, "the land, the fields, the forest, the animals! That to me is what made Vermont." Both women acknowledge that people have to have a place to live, the population must grow. "And they have to make a decision if they want to keep it unique or if it wants it to be all developed," says Ms Beatty.

Ms. Hafner has a faraway look in her eyes, and I ask her if she's sad. "No I'm not sad," she says. "I'm just very happy I was born and brought up on a farm because I always felt that I learned good values. I was taught to work. But you had a good time doing it. Because you worked together." She adds that farm life also taught people how to get along well with their neighbors, and to share. "If there was a need you tried to fill it as best as you could. It was just a good basis for an adult life."

For now, there continues to be a niche for some small farms like the Beatty's. Their farm is all paid for, and their milk goes directly to a dairy cooperative, where it is mixed with the produce of other small farms and marketed right alongside milk from the bigger factory farms.

Yet despite their success, the economic pressures on Vermont's small dairy producers continue to grow. It is an open question whether the deep connection these New England farmers have traditionally had with their animals and their land can be sustained.