From the archives — the day of the auction

by Bethany M. Dunbar, June 11, 2010

New mown hay. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

In case anyone out there reading this is wondering why I write so much about agriculture and particularly dairy farming, I thought this article from the Chronicle archives might help explain my impulse.

I wrote this a short 19 years ago.  I am no longer married to Harvey Dunbar but still a part of his warm and wonderful extended family (or as one friend has called it, post-nuclear family).  The kids are all grown up and doing great things.  Time goes by.  Things change.

For 11 years I covered agriculture from inside of it.  I went to St. Louis to cover the farmer congress arranged by Willie Nelson back in the 1980s and met garlic farmers from far-flung states and all kinds of other farmers.  We had some basic things in common.  We had more in common than not in common.

For a year or two after our auction I did not do a very good job covering dairy farming or agriculture.  I guess I had to give myself a break.  I went to meetings still and wrote articles, but, well, it wasn’t the same.

In recent times I’ve had more enthusiasm for this beat as I see the organic movement growing and providing farmers more immediate control of their price and market, and energy farming options growing including methane digesters.  Consumers are becoming so much more aware of what they are eating and where it came from.  They want local food, healthy food.  This movement is exciting and promising for Vermont farmers, consumers, and everyone who likes to drive by a beautiful hay field.

Things are still wicked tough for the dairy farmers, especially farmers who ship to the conventional market, who have no control over the price they are paid.  That price is controlled by an antiquated federal system that must be changed.

We only have about 1,000 dairy farms left in Vermont and many more will go out of business this year.

I continue to write these stories in hopes that people will better understand these struggles and support the farmers both politically and economically as consumers.

Here’s the story I wrote on the day of our farm auction.

The day of the auction

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, May 8, 1991

I don’t remember the first glass of milk from our own cows that I drank, but I’m sure I’ll remember the last.

Jersey milk is extra rich in butterfat and protein.  Raw Jersey milk takes some getting used to at first — it’s almost as thick, creamy and rich as a milkshake, only not sweet.  But once you develop a taste, the store-bought stuff is a little like eating canned tuna fish when you’re used to lobster.

The last glass was on the day of our auction, last Monday.

• • •

April 29.  I didn’t sleep much last night, but apparently enough to dream.  I dreamed that along with the cows, my five-year-old son’s cross-stitch sewing kit that his grandmother gave him was up on the block.

I know why I had this dream.  It’s because Tristan considers a couple of these cows his, and he doesn’t think we should be selling something that belongs to him.  He’s right, so I have a hard time explaining to him why we are doing this.

Tristan is not here today.  It was his own decision not to be.  I’m sure he was right about this, too.  Tristan’s first sentence was, “Help Daddy milk cows.”

It’s easier for two-year-old Katie Ann.  She doesn’t really know what’s going on, and she’ll get to see more of her father now, after all.

My last glass of milk is as the sale begins.  I have to get away for a minute, it’s too emotional.  I go to the house and have a glass of milk.

In a minute I head back to the barn.  My husband Harvey is nervous.  He’s sitting on the side of the bank surrounded by friends — Bryan, Lowell, Ben, others.  Some of them may buy something, others are here just to see how he’s doing, and how the auction goes.  They are sitting on the bank watching while across the road, the auction starts with the machinery.

That stuff goes quick.  Generally, machinery isn’t bringing much these days with the price of milk as low as it is.  There are so many farm auctions, people can pick up equipment anywhere.  It’s definitely a buyer’s market.

Ours goes okay though.  Harvey seems to be relaxing.  Now for the cows.  This is the hard part to watch.  He goes in the barn, where he won’t have to watch it happen head-on.  He milks each cow as she comes in from being sold.  He had to wait until 10 p.m. to milk last night in order to have them full of milk for the sale.  They look better that way.

He stayed up almost all night, anyway, drinking coffee and sitting in the barn with his cows.  He had hired a man, Tim, to help us over the last week, and the two of them took shifts in the barn, keeping the cows clean.

Over the last few days, it’s been hard to tell whether our farm had the air of a wedding or a funeral.  The crew of Northeast Kingdom Sales came Saturday to set up the bright blue and white tent in case of rain.  As it turned out, it wasn’t needed and the sides are left off.  Anyway it certainly adds a festive air.

Under the tent is a plywood platform with a podium on it.  All this is at one end of our barn.  Sunday, the crew came with a pressurized spray cow-washing machine and hosed the girls off with Wisk detergent, one at a time.  They shivered in their tie-stalls, wondering what this was all about.  It’s not every day they get a bath and their tails combed.

It was only two weeks ago that Harvey made his final decision.  This came after months of wrangling and rassling with various options.  Expanding the herd size, then when that didn’t work making it smaller.  Nothing worked.  Our cost of production is still higher than what we make.

We figured over the summer we would lose about $2,000 a month.  I know this sounds like a lot, but others are losing more.  At the meetings, the unending meetings, farmers consistently say they are losing $3,000 to $8,000 a month.

These meetings, ostensibly to meet with politicians or advocates or other people who promise they have the power to do something, wind up being helpful in the way of support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.  People stand up and tell about their situation, and a murmur of sympathy runs through the crowd.  We all feel better afterwards, knowing we’re not alone.  Farmers Anonymous, these should be called.

A few of the lucky ones are breaking even right now and will hang on.  I say lucky, but it’s not luck.  It’s men and women who are in their sixties or seventies and have farmed since they were old enough to carry a milk pail and have finally paid off their debt.  If you have no debt, you might be able to make it at the current price of milk.  But so few have no debt.

Others will hang on because they simply have no other choice.  The whole economy is bad, there are no jobs.  The price of milk has to go up again sometime, right?  They will try to weather this.

Some have no choice because they’ve already sold their development rights, so they have no chance to get money out of the farm.  Others can find nobody to buy the farm in the flat economy.

What will happen is the economy will pick up in southern New England long before here, so those people will have money to snatch up bargain properties in northern Vermont.  Ten-acre lots, their dream come true.  Vermont’s nightmare.  Vermont will start looking more and more like suburban Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, the farmers try to hang on.

The people to whom they owe money understand.  We had a call not long ago from one guy who breeds cows.  If we could send $44, we would be caught up to within 150 days, he said, sounding apologetic for even asking.  I said I would ask Harvey, I thought we could come up with the money.

But when the milk check comes, you have to pay the electricity or they’ll shut that off.  You have to pay certain bills, or other services will get shut off.  The nice guys are the ones you don’t pay, because they’re the ones that don’t take you to court.   Then you feel like shit when you walk into their stores to charge something else, or when you run into them in town.

Harvey and I and our two children have an option.  We will move in with his parents, become an example of how the extended family is coming back into fashion by sheer economic necessity.  He will work for our present landlords putting up feed, and in the winter make some income boarding heifers in our heifer barn.  We’ll also continue raising sheep on the side, and I have my job at the newspaper.

With that heifer barn, one day, if the price ever got better he could build on to it a little, raise some heifers and get back into dairy farming.

At the auction, Jeff, another farmer, tells me Harvey will be farming again in a month.  He means Harvey has farming in his blood.

That’s the trouble, farming does get in your blood and then what can you do?  The reason farmers don’t get any money is that they’re willing to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week with very rare vacations or even an entire day off, if only they can break even.

It’s like an addiction, and that’s why we need Farmers Anonymous.

Of course the milk dealers take advantage of us in this situation.  And you don’t see the price of milk for consumers dropping in the stores.  The middle-men, Kraft cheese and everybody else, are making out like bandits.  Long live Corporate America.

By the time I’m talking to Jeff about how long Harvey’s likely to stay out of farming, I’m a little more relaxed, too.  The third or fourth cow that sold brought $2,600, which is much more than we expected.

I start looking around at the crowd and find people looking at me with a certain expression.  How is she handling this, they wonder.  I alternate between relief that it’s going well and sadness at not wanting to see this part of our lives over.

I’m holding up pretty well until I start talking to Liz, Jeff’s wife, in the milkhouse.  Jeff wouldn’t even be able to go to his own auction, she says.  Things shouldn’t be like this.  I start to cry, and then she quickly changes the subject to a funny sign on the wall so I can think about something else.

It works, and I go to look for Harvey to see how he’s doing.  Farming is his dream more than mine, and I expected him to be heartsick today.  But he’s mainly relieved and gratified that it’s going so well.  A lot of important people in the Jersey breed in the state, and even some from New Hampshire and New York, are here today.

He’s pleased to see that 11 years of work, breeding our cows to the best bulls, raising the best heifer calves, has paid off.  Despite the low milk price, the price of cattle is still good.  One couple from Burke who bought 17 of our cows is just going into farming.  I hope they have good luck.

Our landlords, Al and Joan, bought a few.  So those will stay here, including some of Tristan’s pets.

As the auction rolls along, I am starting to get excited.  I see the subtle battles fought with slight tips of the head as auctioneer Reg Lussier rattles on about this or that cow.

The sad part comes at the tail end of the sale when our older cows go for $700 or so.  Eve is like one of the family.  She was named Eve because she was the first calf we had born to one of our own cows, 11 years ago.  She was the beginning of our beautiful herd.

Over the years, she gave us almost all heifer calves, and that cow family is one of our best.   She is a lovely cow, mostly black and dark brown with a funny white marking on her flank.  Her face is so wise.  I’ll miss her.

At about 3 in the afternoon, it’s all over.  We have done well.  The cows brought a lot of money.  It will all go to our main creditor — the check is even made out to them — but that will get us caught up to a reasonable level on that debt.

Harvey has saved out his round baling equipment, and that will be his way of making some income this summer.

By the end of the summer we should have the leftover day-to-day bills paid off.   We should be able to go into the stores in town without getting that sinking feeling.

The auction started at 11.  So much riding on so few hours.  But it went okay, and we’ll sleep better tonight.

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4 responses to “From the archives — the day of the auction

  1. What a heartfelt and heart wrenching story. It says so much about you and your connection to what’s happening today.

    These time can be so challenging, but let’s hope everyone who as struggled comes to the same sense of perspective that you express today in your current work.

    Thank you for digging this one out and sharing it.

  2. wow, bethany, very powerful, even after all this time……life certainly turns in circles, doesn’t it?

  3. What a great story!
    I know Mom and Dad had a hard time with the Auction too.(17 years ago) Wendi was the only child that came home for it.. But everything happens for a reason… it’s true how most farmers don’t leave farming.. that’s all that they know.. Now Mom and Dad are happy out in Montana with Wendi , Barb and grandkids. To this day, Dad won’t go near the farm in S Albany.

  4. vermontfeature

    Kelly – I remember your parents’ auction. I know how they feel, and it must have been so much harder for them because hadn’t the farm been in their family for many generations? But at least it’s still a farm and still in the family! Thank God it’s not condos or something! Glad to hear they are doing well in Montana. Please send my regards.

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