Monthly Archives: July 2011

On sock drawers, Cadillac parades, and high milk prices

On sock drawers, Cadillac parades, and high milk prices

by Bethany M. Dunbar, July 28, 2011

My dog has figured out the significance of the sock drawer in his life.

Yesterday I was getting ready to take him for a walk and went upstairs to the bedroom to grab some socks, so I could put my sneakers on.  As soon as I put my hand on the drawer, Ullr, a 96-pound male yellow Lab, (two years old) began leaping around the room with joy.

I stood there with socks in hand wondering, what the heck has got into him?

Then it dawned on me (humans are slow sometimes) that I don’t wear my sneakers to work in the summer.  I wear sandals with no socks.  So if I’m reaching for socks, it means we are going for a walk.  Thus all that happiness and joy.

A walk in the morning is almost as joyful for me as it is for him.  I love seeing the young marsh hawks learning to fly, the deer tracks, and smelling new-mown hay.  The crickets have started chirping and the Orleans County Fair is only three weeks away.  Can’t believe it.

Tell everyone you know about the Cadillac parade at the fair August 17.  Bruce Springsteen is invited.  It’s going to be a hoot and a half.  If you are bringing a Cadillac, make sure to let Lorie Seadale at the Parson’s Corner restaurant know about it because she is trying to break a world record.  To see a You Tube video on it, look here:

This summer I have the best vegetable garden I’ve ever had.  The plants are bursting with life, and the garden is so full there’s barely room for me to get in between the veggie plants to weed them.

From my house I can hear one neighbor farmer mowing, and another one putting in hay.  These guys work all the time.  I saw a headline in Time magazine that caught my eye and generated a rather sharp reaction:

“Want to get rich?  Be a farmer.”

I have known one or two well-to-do farmers but haven’t known any who didn’t work their buttocks off to get there.  It’s true that there are corporate farms in other parts of the country that have milked the federal tax subsidies to the point to the point where they might just dry up.

The article talks about how food prices are rising and more of the world is buying food from the U.S.  True, but when did high food prices lead to more profits for farmers?  I have seen many times when high milk prices created high profits for processors of dairy products while the farmers still continued to struggle financially to pay the bills.

There are farmers making money, absolutely no question about it.  But to suggest farming in general as a way to get rich seems outrageous on its face.

Instead farming can be a way to be close to your land, family, and community and to be proud of the quality healthy food you are providing.  It can be rewarding in so many ways.

To illustrate my point I will post here a story I did about the milk prices, which are up, and Donna and Brad Gray.

We see Donna and Brad fairly often at the Chronicle because they come to the office to pick up our old newspapers.  They take them back to the farm and chop them up for bedding for the cows.

Really, truly, happy cows sleep comfortably on chopped up Chronicles. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

On another subject, if you get a chance, take a look at the Chronicle’s web site where I have posted an NEK Alumni Note about my former sister-in-law Heather Dunbar Kresser who has won yet another championship in Cowboy Action Shooting competitions.  A lot of people remember her as the first woman Game Warden in Vermont — just a few short years ago, right Heather?

Chickory catches the sun along the roadside in West Glover. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Milk prices rise along with cost of production

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, June 22, 2011

Milk prices are higher than they have been for a long time, and one industry analyst says there’s a good chance they might remain on the high side.

It should be good news for dairy farmers who sell to the non-organic commercial market.

But their expenses have gone up drastically at the same time.  The average cost of production is still higher than the pay price.

And it has been a difficult spring as farmers struggled to get crops planted and make hay in the wet spring weather.

Economist Bob Wellington of Agri-Mark said in a telephone interview that a lot of the reason the milk price is higher is more exports.  About 15 percent of the dairy products made in the United States are being sold out of the country.  That’s higher than it has been for a long time, he said.  In 2007 the U.S. was exporting 13 to 14 percent, but exports dropped, and the milk price dropped too.

The milk price for non-organic dairy farmers is set by the federal government — the Milk Market Administrator.  It is established based on sales, and regional prices are adjusted around the country.  When the nation’s dairy farmers produce more than 2 percent over the amount consumed, the farm price often drops much more than 2 percent, Mr. Wellington said.

He said milk production in the United States in May was 1.5 percent higher than last year, based on indications from 23 major dairy states.  That increase is lower than the amount the population and market increases in general, which might mean the higher prices will hold.

According to a report from the Milk Market Administrator, the statistical uniform price of milk (an average price received by non-organic farmers in northern Vermont) was $19.94 for a hundred pounds, or $1.71 a gallon.  Organic Valley’s advertised average pay price for March 2011 was $27.80 for a hundred pounds or $2.39 a gallon.

According to the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of milk production in Vermont is $24.57 a hundredweight or $2.11 a gallon.

“They need a profitable year,” said Mr. Wellington about the dairy farmers.  He said 2009 was farmers’ worst year ever.

In 2009 farmers got about 95 cents a gallon, about 50 cents less than the average cost of production.

Sometimes when the milk price goes up, farmers increase production too much too soon.

“Given feed prices and availability of feed, it’s going to be very difficult for that to happen,” Mr. Wellington said, especially with so much flooding in other parts of the country and around the world.

As of June 2011 Vermont has 993 cow dairies left, according to Kelly Loftus of the Agency of Agriculture.  Two years ago there were 1,100.

Demand from overseas is strong from several countries, Mr. Wellington said, including China, South America, New Zealand, Australia and even India, which is the largest milk producing country in the world but consumes more than it produces at this point.

“We need a way to manage it,” Mr. Wellington said.  There is a bill in front of Congress that would establish a supply management system of sorts — not exactly a Canadian quota plan, but a system that would discourage excess production with financial disincentives, so that it would not be worth making the surplus.

Organic farmers have a supply management system within their industry, and for a time the market required less production.  Existing farmers were restricted and new ones were not added.  But 2010 saw double-digit growth for the organic dairy market, according to Ed Maltby of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

At Gray’s Hilltop Farm in Charleston, Brad and Donna Gray are happy to be able to pay the bills this year, but they aren’t getting ahead or even caught back up from the devastating milk price situation of two years ago.

Some of their biggest expenses are grain and corn, which has gone up due to the use of ethanol for fuel, they said.

Mr. Maltby reported the price of feed corn is up by 36 percent.

Two of the Grays’ other main expenses are fuel for tractors and plastic for round hay bales.  Both are costing more, and prices are climbing.  Mr. Gray said he got a price locked in for $75 for one load of the plastic, which will wrap about 30 bales.  Since then the price has gone up to $90, which means it will cost $3 for plastic for each bale.

The Grays also make dry square bales.  They used to make all dry bales but found the food value was not as good and they had to buy feed.  Once they started making round bales and wrapping them they had plenty for their herd.

The Grays have 35 milkers, about 80 cows in all, and they ship milk to St. Albans Cooperative Creamery.  They were honored recently with an award for making exceptional quality milk, and their farm is a Dairy of Distinction, which means it’s been judged to be well-kept and beautiful.

Mr. Gray grew up on a farm.  When he went to Vietnam in 1972 for nine months he remembers calling home and telling his parents he wanted to come home and farm.

He did.  He married his high school sweetheart, Donna Limlaw, and the two raised two children there.  These days their 16-year-old grandson, Jordan, helps with the farm and thinks he might like to be a farmer.

“For a year he’s been milking with me,” said Mrs. Gray.  She said farming is not for everyone, but suits them.  Anyone thinking of going into it should think long and hard, she said.  They have never taken a vacation; they only leave the farm for day trips.

Donna and Brad Gray at their dairy farm, a Dairy of Distinction. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar