As far as anyone can remember, the 365-acre Davenport Farm has had dairy cows in the Patten Hill district.
By: DIANE BRONCACCIO
The rolling hills had cows when the first Davenports bought the property in 1913, says Maegen (Davenport) Senser, who was raised on the farm and is a fifth-generation farmer there.
But milk has become a money-losing proposition, and so the Normandy herd of dairy cows is to be sold to make room for animals that will be raised for grass-fed beef and pork.
“Maegen and I have been talking about it for a couple of years,” says her husband, Nathaniel Senser. “The economics don’t work. We can’t make money.” In winter, Senser points out, “the utility bills alone outweigh what we make on milk. Right now, we’re not producing enough milk to cover that electric bill — never mind the other costs.”
Besides the struggle to get through winter, the farmers have another hurdle: their principal milk buyer is going organic, which means more expense and tons of paperwork required before the Davenport milk could be certified organic.
The Davenport Farm now has about 22 dairy cows in its herd, including calves and yearlings, which are to be sold as the farm brings in Devon cows and purebred calves for meat production. They will also be raising American guinea hogs and a breed of Berkshire hogs.
Maegen’s father, Norman Davenport, 58, learned how to milk cows from his grandfather, and has been doing that chore “before I was tall enough to see over the cow,” he says. In the 1960s, according to Davenport, Massachusetts had 1,400 dairy farms. Now there are a tenth as many, he says.
According to Claire Morenon of CISA (Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), Franklin County now has about 35 dairy farms, and the state itself has 142.
“We’ve gone from 1,400 to 140 — literally losing 90 percent of the dairy farms in the span of my career,” Davenport said. “The reality is the income doesn’t cover the costs. And there’s nothing in this economic trend to indicate there’s a turning-around point,” he said. “The average age of dairy farmers is around 60, and the last 40 years is a history of federal government price regulations. If you follow that math trend into the next 10 years, there could be no dairy farmers here. And your only milk will be what you find in the stores — from monster farms that can make plenty of milk and have it trucked into Massachusetts.”
In 2005, Davenport sold off his Holstein herd and, in 2007, started building a herd of grass-fed Normandy cows that produce organic-quality milk, but don’t have “organic” certification. Now that the main buyer of Davenport’s raw milk is becoming a fully organic operation, the dairy must either invest in a complicated, time-consuming procedure and paperwork to be a certified organic milk producer, or lose its main customer. The farmers say they already follow organic dairy practices but lack the “organic” designation.
Davenport said the pastures on the family farm produce enough feed for a herd of about 30 cows, “to make a product whose value is not enough.” Davenport said farmers put in 12 to 14-hour days, including at least four hours a day milking cows at 4:30 a.m. and p.m., plus cleaning the barn. “There is no interest in compensating the farmers for his cost.”
When he is told an old joke about dairy farming, “How do you make $1 million dairy farming,” Davenport finishes it off: “You start with $2 million and you know when to quit.”
“You have to recognize the marketing conditions have no interest in your survival. I’ve dealt with this my entire career, of making a product that doesn’t get compensated for the costs.”
Maegen and Nate, who are in their 30s, have taken over running the popular Davenport’s Restaurant, which serves maple pancake breakfasts and other local fare. But the profits from maple sugar and the restaurant have been reinvested back into the dairy part of the business.
“Farmers can only make money with thousands of cows,” says Maegen Senser. “When you’re at that size, how do you maintain the quality?” She said commercial milk, coming from far-away farms, has been processed many times and does not have the same taste as fresh, local milk. “There’s no incentive for quality,” she said. “Kids don’t want to drink milk anymore. Our kids drink our milk all day long, but don’t like to drink the milk at school.”
“We’re just trying to find something sustainable that will keep us here,” says her husband.
Maegen says her parents largely oversee the dairy operations, while she and her husband run the restaurant, the maple sugar business, do the bookkeeping, social media and manage the business’ website. They also raise purebred collies and will be handling the beef and pork herds. In addition, Nate Senser is farm manager for another farm down the road.
The nearby Wheel-View Farm, run by John and Carolyn Wheeler, had been a dairy farm from 1896 until 1988, when the Wheelers sold their dairy herd. They now raise beef cattle on their land and produce maple syrup and hard cider on their farm.
Davenport’s Maple Farm Restaurant is open weekends, March through October, according to its website. It may add Friday evening dinners during the summer months.