Three dairy farmers, District Representative John Scibak and Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) representatives Katelyn Parsons and Brad Mitchell, gathered at Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley, MA late September to discuss dairy farming. The farmers were Denise Barstow of Barstow’s Longview Farm, Hatfield’s Daryl Williams of Luther Belden Farm and Hadley’s Jessica Dizek of Mapleline Farm.
Each farm serves an educated market which is looking for better ingredients and healthier food to buy for their kids. Each farm also faces the same challenges of equipment and labor issues.
“One of the biggest challenge in Massachusetts, as I see it, is price,” said Williams, 13th generation farmer. “Folks like Barstow and myself — wholesale shippers — whatever the price is, that’s what we get, no matter what,” he said. “There are only 150 of us left.”
“Farmers don’t have anything to say about the price of milk,” said Scibak, as they are dictated by federal programs.
The four million tax credit set in place in 2008 for Massachusetts dairy farmers “only kicks in when the cost of production is greater than the cost of the milk. Right now, it hasn’t been enough to pay the farmers. Due to high production costs — through no fault of their own — the cost exceeds the price of milk,” said Mitchell. On Sept. 18, 2017, a bill to double the 4 million to 8 million was heard by the Revenue Committee. Now called HB 3908, it’s one step closer to making its way to the senate, championed by Rep Stephan Kulik D-Worthington.
“When we get tax credit, it’s survival money. It’s doesn’t let us buy a new tractor,” said Williams. Labor is another challenge.
Barstow’s is a 7th generation farm started in 1960. They currently milk 150 cows and raise 200 acres of corn. They have a zero-waste anaerobic digester that converts waste into methane gas which powers a generator to supply electricity to their farm. They installed five Lely Astronaut A4 robot milkers in 2014. Each cow wears a collar that “takes a ton of info” such as weight and temperature which is added to the record of her last milking when she walks into the milking chute.
“It helps us to be better parents,” said Barstow. “We used to have two high school students that never worked with cows before. Now, with robotics, everybody who works there is full time and all know the animals. It’s helped us be more efficient. The corn chopper rolled down the hill at 8 o’clock this morning.” In the past, they wouldn’t be out the door until milking was over at 10 a.m.
“It saves us money. We’re working nine hours instead of 16…For animal husbandry, it’s getting so much better,” she added.
“Not a lot of people know about dairy farming. We’ve had UMass students studying here since I was a baby,” said Barstow. “We have to be better at educating the public so that people can recognize the importance of having farms.”
“When we first started bottling milk, it appealed to people for nostalgia,” said Dizek. “There was a market for it.” Because their Jersey cows have higher butter fat content than other breeds, trained chefs sought out their milk and they sold out quickly. They converted to plastic and a huge part of what they put up still goes to chefs.
When they tried home delivery, they found there were pockets of space with few deliveries in between densely populated neighborhoods. In the long run, wholesale delivery worked out better. They now sell in cases versus bottles and have formed working relationships with Big Y and UMass Dining services.
Providing UMass with milk in five gallon bags encompasses 30 to 40 percent of their business. “We don’t have enough cows to supply all the students at UMass. They use us for special events and increased buying from us. They’re telling the students that this milk is from a farm two miles away. The students come to the farm and in the fall, we do samplings,” said Dizek. “They don’t drop us in May” when the students leave, either.
“On a farm, you more or less have to run two or three businesses. We have a food processing plants, running the farm and maintaining the farm,” said Dizek.
Farming areas are becoming more suburban as more urban people move in. “They have to smell us, deal with types of things we do to farm. Legislature and state has helped us out with their economic viability. These [programs] help make it feasible to farm here,” said Williams.
New bills are proposing changes in current estate tax for farmers. Currently an estate tax is levied when an inherited estate’s value exceeds 1 million. Williams said, “The property is assessed at its highest and best use. When you inherit it, you have to sell it to continue farming.”
“Unfortunately for farmers, they tend to be land rich and cash poor,” said MFBF rep Mitchell. “When the matriarch or patriarch dies, the land is worth over 1 million because of its development value. Their kids don’t want to sell, but have to sell it or develop it to pay estate tax.”
HB 3323 and SB 1584 propose valuing farmland at agricultural value versus development value for estate tax purposes. The land must remain in agriculture for 10 years or the seller pays back taxes and a high capital gains tax.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the Agriculture Preservation Restrictions program, where farmers sell the developments of their land but still live on it. “APR has been a tremendous asset to us,” said Williams. “One thing that helps us is Jim McGovern; he serves on the ag committee. He’s a big advocate for nutrition and the hungry.” He added, “It’s not just the milk [and] not just the open space. It’s our heritage.”