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Around The Grange
Straight From The Cow

By Livia Gershon (Hartford/Worcester Business Journal 2/22/10)

  FEBRUARY 25, 2010 --

Local dairy farms strategize to survive

The notion of buying local, naturally-produced food continues to gain mainstream popularity as weekly supermarket flyers advertise products grown at New England farms.

It's a trend that can be seen at a number of Connecticut supermarkets, where milk produced locally is now branded, marketed and sold on their shelves.

And it's becoming a financial benefit to the state's 152 dairy farms, down from 500 farms in 1990 and 210 in 2007. According to the state Department of Agriculture, the state's dairy industry employs 4,200 and produced 351 million pounds of milk in 2008, of which 40 percent was consumed in Connecticut.

The Farmer's Cow, a group of six Connecticut family dairy farms, is benefiting from the increased demand for locally grown products. The group has struck deals with a number of regional supermarket chains and local stores, including Big Y, Geissler's, Price Chopper, Shaw's, Shop-Rite and Stop & Shop.

"There is a huge growth in appreciation of locally grown foods and knowing where your foods come from," said Robin Chesmer, managing member of The Farmer's Cow. "That's what local agriculture is all about. Look at growth in farmers market, all across the state, and that just demonstrates the consumers' appreciation of locally grown food."

The same trend is happening in Massachusetts. Maine-based Hannaford Bros. grocery chain has signed on to a campaign by the New England dairy industry to draw attention to - and raise money for - local dairy farms.

Hannaford joined with the Keep Local Farms program, launched in September, to help struggling dairy farmers caught between the low prices they are paid for their milk and the high cost to produce milk.

The economic climate has been punishing. According to Jennifer Bourbeau, director of communication for the New England Dairy Promotion Board, milk costs an average of $1.80 a gallon to produce.

In 2009, the price that same gallon commands on the market dropped to 90 cents. Prices are up a bit these days, to around $1.25 a gallon.

"Many of our dairy farmers went out of business last year, or they're taking out enormous loans just to break even," she said.

In fact, staying at least fairly local when it comes to dairy is no challenge in New England.

"Dairy is an area where a very high proportion of the product is local within state borders or contiguous states," said Michael Norton, Hannaford's director of communications.

For the most part, buying local dairy in New England means buying from small producers. A University of Massachusetts Amherst study found that in 2007 the average herd size in Massachusetts was 65. That's nearly double what it was in 1970, but it's still a fraction of the California average of 824.

Bourbeau said local farmers are worth supporting because they help keep open space in New England and because they help maintain the rural economic infrastructure by providing jobs for veterinarians, food suppliers and farm labor.

Connecticut lawmakers recognize the struggle of the state's $1 billion dairy industry. In July, Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed into law a bill that aims to preserve the state's dairy farms by creating a two-year payment program for farmers.

According to the state Department of Agriculture, which will administer the quarterly payment program, Connecticut dairy farmers lose about $1 for every gallon of milk they produce.

The amount of the payment would be based on how much milk each farm produces and the costs to produce it, such as feed, equipment, fertilizer and fuel.

The state payment is intended to help the dairy farmer absorb some of the financial losses.



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