Dairy farms in Massachusetts, and across New England, are evaporating

Dairy farming is an essential part of a local and sustainable food system. Real dairy starts with real farm families. Across the US, 95% of all dairy farms are family farms. New England is home to over 1,000 dairy farms. Many of them have been passed down for generations. 

In Massachusetts, seventeen of the 117 dairy farms are located in Berkshire County. They manage most of the farmland and inject millions into the local economy each year. Massachusetts is more food-sufficient for dairy than for anything else and most of the milk is bottled or processed into products sold in state. But about two-thirds of Massachusetts’ dairy farms have closed down since 1997

The viability of the region’s dairy farms are under tremendous pressure. Falling milk prices, combined with changing consumer preferences and real estate development pressure, leave many dairy farmers struggling. Over the last half century, New England has lost more than 10,000 of its dairy farms.

A handful of younger people in the county have decided to help keep their family dairy farms going. They know that farming in Massachusetts isn’t easy. Land costs are high and the second-home market drives up prices. Milk prices are declining and the work is relentless. The life of a dairy farmer often means living with debt. Even so, dedication to a family tradition and to growing food for the region brought them back to their farms,” according to the Berkshire Edge.

It took the pandemic for many people to realize a good way to avoid food shortages was to turn to local producers. While the pandemic created increased demand for local food, it negatively impacted land prices and supply chains. Beginning farmers now compete for land and housing with non-farmers relocating or seeking second homes in rural areas. The already strong pre-pandemic interest in expanding and diversifying farming opportunities to boost local food production has dramatically grown among consumers, community leaders and policy makers. Plans and policies need to make land more available and affordable for beginning farmers who want to get started or expand in this strained economic time. 

The average age of New England farmers is increasing. The farm succession challenge is compounded for dairy farms by the very nature of the enterprise. Dairy farmers have substantial equity tied up in land, equipment, infrastructure, and animals. Those are daunting start-up costs for beginning dairy farmers.  

There’s also a disconnect in the type of agricultural products produced by young and senior farmers in New England, according to Gaining Access, Gaining Insights. Using a special tabulation of Census of Agriculture 2012 data, the project compared the primary commodities produced by senior farmers without young secondary or tertiary operators to all young principal operators. For a few commodities—notably fruit, greenhouse/nursery and “other crop farming,” which includes hay, maple, and highly diversified farms—there are significantly fewer young farmers growing these crops. Conversely, data showed more young farmers than seniors growing diversified vegetables and other higher value, annual crops as their primary commodity. The dairy industry is a critical player in the region’s economic vitality and manages extensive areas of farmland critical to New England’s rural character.

Berkshire County in Massachusetts epitomizes this intersection of beginning farmer opportunity, transitioning farmer need – especially dairy – and a spike in land costs. The county has a similar percentage of beginning farmers as the state overall, but the 3rd highest senior farming population (age 65+) in the state. 35% of producers are 65 and older, which means that there are 4 producers 65 and older for every producer age 35 and under. [Census of Agriculture]. 

The strong local and regional market for agricultural products offers significant farming opportunities, but the already high costs of farmland have spiked as  the pandemic land rush is driving up land values and making it harder to access for those who want to keep it in active farming. Farmland values have risen over 25% in two south Berkshire County towns in less than a year due to the pandemic, according to one Massachusetts state official. High land and housing costs add to the challenges beginning farmers face – and the risk of transitioning farmers being unable to transfer farms to beginning farmers. 

Increased attention to farmland access and transfer is needed in Berkshire County. Not unlike other parts of New England, an aging farmer population, rising land values, and development pressure from second homeowners and those moving out of larger metropolitan areas for more rural living threaten the region’s agricultural resources and local food security. However, a mountain range creates real and perceived barriers with the rest of the state. So unlike other areas, the county lacks local farmer service providers and awareness of relevant educational resources or tools is low among farmers. Thus, the farming community operates in comparative isolation and with minimal organizational support or resources for farmland access and transfer. 

Land For Good will partner with American Farmland Trust to accomplish this goal. American Farmland Trust has recently secured sustaining funds to support their side of this work and has interviewed farmers and organizations in Berkshire County to better understand the needs.

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