A calf peers out from her stall at Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
A calf peers out from her stall at Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro.

Veggies and creemees help keep a family farm going

With higher production costs outpacing dairy farming revenue, farms have to get creative to survive

WEST BRATTLEBORO — On a cool and overcast June morning, Amanda Thurber led three successive groups of kindergarteners from Academy School on a tour of the dairy operation at Lilac Ridge Farm on Ames Hill Road.

She guided the children around the organic farm she runs with her husband, Ross, and she took them through the whole milk production process, from cow to glass.

At the end of the tour, she gave them all a sample of organic soft-serve ice cream from the farm's new creemee stand.

“They always have a good time,” Amanda said after the last bus pulled away. “The kids are so happy to be around farmers.”

Aside from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when the schools were shut down, Academy kindergarteners have been coming out to Lilac Ridge Farm twice a year for the past 14 years.

The trips “help connect the kids with the food they eat,” she said, adding that the June trip always has a dairy theme.

For decades, June has been promoted by the International Dairy Foods Association as National Dairy Month, and for years, many of the kids would get a glimpse of cows during the Strolling of the Heifers in downtown Brattleboro.

The Stroll ended with the pandemic and the disbanding of the organization that ran it last year. And the continued struggles for dairy farmers in Vermont make it tougher to imagine whether future schoolchildren will still have dairy farms to tour.

A rough time

According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, 11,000 dairy farms operated in Vermont in 1950. That number is down to 508, with 18 of them in Windham County.

Of the remaining farms, many fall into two categories: organic farms, such as Lilac Ridge, or large operations with hundreds of cows.

The economics of dairy farming have been out of whack for years, and, with milk prices set nationwide by a convoluted formula - one disconnected from the costs to produce it - Vermont farms usually lose money on every gallon of milk they sell.

“The production costs keep going up, but milk prices have been stagnant,” Amanda Thurber said.

Lilac Ridge Farm has about 100 cows, with 40 active milkers, Thurber said. The farm has been been certified organic since the late 1990s and has been part of the Organic Valley cooperative since 2007.

Organic Valley was paying farmers a premium for their milk and, with growing demand for organic dairy products, smaller farms found going organic a way to stay in business.

“The going was good when we first joined the co-op,” she said.

But Vermont's organic farmers met a fate similar to what conventional dairy farms in Vermont experienced.

Mega-farms in the Midwest and Western states are producing more milk - regular and organic - at a lower cost that drove down prices for farmers in the Northeast.

Add increased costs for feed, fuel, and other needs for the farm, and going organic may no longer be enough to save the state's small dairy farms.

According to Amanda Thurber, the dairy operation on the family's 600-acre farm has not made a profit in more than five years.

“Dairy is very capital-intensive business, and a lot of farms are not doing that well,” she said.

The Vermont state budget for fiscal year 2024 contains $6.9 million of emergency financial relief for organic dairies, to be administered as grants through the Agency of Agriculture.

According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), one of the proponents of the plan, these grants “will be available to dairy farms still in operation that shipped or processed their own organic milk in 2022, in the amount of $5 per hundredweight of organic milk they sold or shipped last year.”

Will that boost be enough to help the 127 organic dairy farms that were still operating in Vermont as of April of this year?

It is too soon to tell, but the first step will be getting the budget approved. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it, and the Legislature will be convening for a special session next week to consider overriding that veto.

Lots of eggs in lots of baskets

With dairy, both conventional and organic, seemingly a losing proposition in the Northeast, farmers have to be creative and adaptable if they want to stay in business.

Amanda Thurber has long been an advocate for diversification. While dairy “is still the hub” of Lilac Ridge Farm, she said the organic flower and vegetable farm has become an important part of the business since she and Ross got organic certification for the farm in the late 1990s.

A couple of years ago, the Thurbers turned their farm house into a short-term vacation rental to bring a little more money into the farm.

And now, Lilac Ridge Farm is teaming up with another organic dairy operation, Miller Farm in Vernon, to create organic maple creemees.

Amanda said that, with the help of a grant from NOFA-VT, Miller Farm has developed a soft-serve creemee mix that uses organic maple syrup from the nearby Robb Family Farm for flavoring.

“There's no other certified organic creemees on the East Coast,” Thurber said. “There's someone out in California making organic soft-serve, but no one is doing it in the East. It's just another way we can keep dairy alive here in Vermont.”

The Thurbers invested $28,000 in a trailer to set up a creemee stand. “It's like buying a car,” Amanda said. “It will take about three years worth of creemees to pay it off.”

The creemee stand had a soft opening (no pun intended) on June 4. The formal opening will take place on Friday, June 16, and Thurber said the stand will be open from 2 to 6 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and 2 to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

She said she “knew nothing about making ice cream” before teaming up with the Millers.

“It's a whole other line of work,” she said. “I'm used to getting dirty.”

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