VERONA, NY — In its 80th screening, the Forgotten Farms documentary film was a sober look at reality for the mostly, local dairy audience watching it at VVS High School while the non-farming audience might have been surprised to learn the value of dairy farms to a region. “We made it to educate others about the plight of New England dairy farmers and bridge the cultural divide about the perceptions of a farming life,” said the film’s director, Dave Simonds.
“Forgotten Farms examines class divides in the Northeastern farm and food communities. In more affluent communities; farm-to-table restaurants, farmer’s markets and CSAs are booming and the new farmers are celebrated. But there is another farmer who is left out of the local food celebration. New England has lost over 10,000 conventional dairy farms in the past 50 years and less than 2,000 farms remain. Collectively, they tend 1.2 million acres of farmland and produce almost all of the milk consumed in New England. Through conversations with dairy farmers and policy experts, the film reconsiders the role of these vital but forgotten farmers, who will be essential players in a regional food economy.”
“With two Cape Cods’ worth of farmland gone out of business, I feel like we are taking our New England farmers for granted,” said Sarah Gardner, the film’s producer. “Unless we have radical changes, possibly re-regionalizing our food system, we are in trouble.”
“We believe dairy farming in New England remains critically important to our agricultural economy and our farming future. It is neither a dying industry nor an irrelevant one. They continue to be among the most successful commercial farms. The region’s lands and soils are well-suited to growing grass and cows, and milk is our most abundant and nutritious farm product. Dairy farmers are the stewards of our farmland and hold the key to a regional food system.”
The film highlighted 15 New England dairy farms and artfully painted a picture through the region’s history, diversity, and personal stories on the culture of dairy farming. It also highlighted perspectives from former state agriculture secretaries, industry professionals and concerned citizens. Laughter broke out when it was mentioned “that only three people know how our milk pricing system works, and two of them — are dead…”
Retired New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner and cast member, Lorraine Stuart Merrill said, “We need to focus on what dairy farmers are doing right, not wrong. We’ll need more local production as climate change affects our region. We need to build bridges between all sectors of agriculture. There’s a place for all of us.”
As the lights came up for the 70 guests, a panel discussion ensued with the filmmakers, FFA State Sentinel, Kristie Ann Frank, VVS FFA leader and Oneida County District 1 legislator, Keith Schiebel, Oneida County dairy farmer and Farm Bureau District 6 Director, Jake Schieferstine and Oneida County Cornell Cooperative Extension Ag. Economic Development Specialist, Marty Broccoli. “We need to sell the local food message as people are disconnected from the farm. We’re glad this film shows the realities of dairy farming and hope the public will respond,” said Broccoli. “The synergy of the evening opened our minds to how much we can be a part of, and a solution for a more resilient local food system,” emphasized Oneida County CCE’s Ag Senior Team Leader, Bonnie Collins.
“Frankly, it was scary to ask the cast of farmers about their transition plans. Most of the younger generations were eyeing some sort of diversification to the dairy,” said Gardner. The audience asked the panel about their ideas on farm preservation (long waiting lists), getting young people into farming, a supply management strategy, getting farmers to unite, the toll of fad diets on dairy consumption and what we all can do to support the dairy industry in a meaningful way.
“When we sit down and talk with older farmers we hear that they grew up in a near total local food economy. Just a few generations ago, most people in rural New England lived on a farm, raised their own pigs and chickens, grew their own vegetables and bought milk and butter from a local dairy. Today, there’s a push to re-create local food systems. But we don’t have to look beyond our older farmers to learn how this worked in their lifetimes,” shared filmmakers Gardner and Simonds.
“Learning about the past is a fascinating aspect of this project. It leads us to the realization that a revitalized local food system is possible, but it will take a lot of time and dedication to increase production and replace national supply chains or order to feed the region. Some of our older dairy farmers remember a robust local food system — they were a central part of it — and they’re more than happy to talk about it, but rarely are they asked. This film asks. A local food system depends on the continued viability of our dairy farms: our film acknowledges their importance and calls attention to their situation.”
The screening event featured an ice-cream social sponsored by the VVS-FFA chapter and a meet and greet with the filmmakers. The evening was supported by the Oneida County Farm Bureau and Oneida County Cornell Cooperative Extension. To learn more about the film visit: Forgottenfarms.org.