Dairy farm marks 150th anniversary

Dairy farm marks 150th anniversary

Corse Farm Dairy credits conversion to organic with stability, but the business of milk in the modern era remains a difficult undertaking

WHITINGHAM — Fifty years ago, New England supported more than 11,500 dairy farms. Only 1,500 still operate today.

One of them, the Corse Farm Dairy, like many others, is a family farm - but one that has spanned six generations and recently celebrated a century and a half of operation.

“My great-great grandfather moved here from Somerset in 1868,” said Leon Corse, who now works the property with his wife, Linda, and their daughter, Abbie. “He bought the farm, and the mortgage was foreclosed two years after.”

His ancestor, Charles H. Corse, “was allowed to live here for several more years to see if he could pay the mortgage,” Corse said, and “at some point in the late 1870s, they gave him an ultimatum”: If Charles's son - Leon's great-grandfather, Lester, then 18 years old - could save the farm, he could keep it.

Lester agreed, and the farm came into his name in 1880. By 1893, he had the mortgage paid off.

Leon Corse's earliest memory comes from when he was 2{1/2} years old. “The milk used to be picked up in cans when we started shipping it in bulk, and I can clearly remember the can truck coming.”

Despite fond memories and love for the farm growing up, Corse did not want to be a farmer. “My reality is, I went away to college,” he said. “I had never experienced life anywhere else, and that's what it took for me to realize this was something I wanted to do.”

A major milestone

This past July, the Corse farm celebrated its 150-year anniversary - a milestone that comes amid the marked decline of dairy farms.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service, from 2007 to 2012, the number of dairy farms in Windham County went from 42 to 25. In 2017, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets counted 22 farms.

Leon Corse credits the farm's transition to organic on the farm's 140th anniversary as the main reason for the farm's survival.

“I went to an Organic Valley producer solicitation out of curiosity,” Corse said. He came back from the meeting thinking that going organic would significantly improve the farm's prospects for longevity.

In hindsight, he said, the farm transitioned to organic at the perfect time: right before the conventional milk prices dropped.

Prices for conventional milk are set by the U.S. government using formulas that are based on a variety of factors, including the market price of the products ultimately made from it, like butter. A report and recommendations of the Vermont Milk Commission, issued by the state Agency of Agriculture in January, observed that supply of conventional milk far exceeds demand, driving pricing down.

In contrast, the same report points out the demand for organic milk exceeding its supply, thus contributing to higher rates for dairy farmers in the state. A 2013 study by the University of Missouri Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics points out that markets for organic milk are largely exempt from federal price controls.

“There is just not enough money to pay the bills, and you can't operate at a loss for very long,” Corse said.

“There is also a work ethic required that is not as common as it was in past generations,” so “it is hard to have an occupation that requires one and a half to two times the hours every week that most people work.”

Since the farm converted to organic, Corse has discovered the myriad of benefits - other than financial.

“If no chemicals or antibiotics are used, no chemicals or antibiotics get into the food supply,” and “by spraying to kill problem plants, you are not killing off the beneficial soil organisms or plants,” he said.

“There is a growing concern about the long-term effects of what we eat on our lifelong health,” Corse said. That concern has resulted in an increased use of organic products.

“It seems to us, we are working with nature instead of combating it,” he said.

However, the Corse Family Farm is still not in the clear.

Even with the higher organic-milk prices, the current “financial returns from dairy are almost nil, making it very difficult to make a living operating adairy farm.” Corse said. Because of this, farm families customarily hold second jobs to cover their living expenses.

“I worry about whether or not our farm will continue to survive in future generations,” Course said. With the number of farms decreasing, dairy suppliers and system maintenance workers are finding it hard to stay in business, all of which further destabilizes the farms.

Looking to the next generation

Leon Corse wanted to leave the farm, but he ended up returning. The same thing happened with Abbie Corse when she went away for college. Once gone, she realized that she wanted to work on the farm.

Now, Abbie lives up the road from the farm and “is theoretically the next generation,” Corse said.

“She has two sons who are 4 and 8 who love coming to the farm with her.”

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