Right now there are 730 active dairy farms in Vermont. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture says 66 have closed in the state so far this year alone. Some of them may have gotten bought out by larger farms, but others have simply gone out of business and their herds were sold at auction.
It’s a tough question facing many dairy farmers around our state right now — who will take over the farm when they retire? With the challenges of milk prices and feed costs, they say aspiring dairy farmers are far and few between.
“I’m not saying we won’t find somebody, but we haven’t found anybody yet,” said Jerry Connor, the owner of Morgan Hill Farm in Bridport. He says he’s interviewed several younger people, trying to find someone to take over running the opertion, but each time he gets the same reaction. “Most of them look at it as, ‘Oh, this is too big,’ or ‘Geez, I’m scared to take that over.'”
Connor can’t really blame them. With milk prices so low, he’s losing upwards of $15,000 a month. A dairy farm right now is a hard sell. “I think most farmers are just sick of it. They don’t want to keep doing it. You can’t find any young people who want to go farming, and most of the farmers are getting to be my age now, so how much longer do you think we’ll be able to keep it going?” he said.
That question is something his wife Cheryl wrestles with too. She’s vice president of the Addison County Farm Bureau. She has watched as farm after farm has disappeared. “There used to be 60 farmers in this valley and I don’t think there’s probably more than 20 in this valley now, and most of them are going to go,” Cheryl Connor said.
After 50 years, the Connors would like to retire too, or at least work part-time. But with no children or grandchildren looking to take it over, they don’t know who will take the reins.
“If they don’t have children who are interested in coming back to the farm, they really are at a loss for what is the next step, what is the succession plan,” said Kirsten Workman, an agronomy specialist with the UVM Extension.
The UVM Extension works with farms like the Connors’ to identify a future plan. But Workman says young people looking to buy may not have the financial ability to take on a large dairy operation, and farmers who have built their lives on the land need to have enough leftover from a sale to find a new place to live.
While some younger dairy farmers find success in diversifying, like adding in cheese or yogurt production, Workman calls that a tough market. But she still has hope. “Farmers are smart and resilient people and they tend to figure out what’s going to work and keep moving things along,” she said.
Connor also says she sees more of the younger farming generation interested in produce, not dairy. But in Addison County Worman says the clay soil is more suited to dairy farms than produce.
So what can be done? The Connors said if banks would help with financing, more young people would to be able to take over and allow the older generation to retire if they want to.
By: Cat Viglienzoni