It’s 3:30 a.m. at the Ackermann household in Hardwick, and the alarm is already going off. It’s time for Sara and Jimmy, a husband and wife team of dairy farmers, to get up and milk the cows. It’s just like they do every day of the year, even when a virus pandemic is spreading across the country.
“It’s seven days a week,” says Sara, “whether it’s raining, snowing, power, no power, sick kids, death in the family, injury, virus that’s shutting the world down.” Every day, she explains, the cows have to be milked and cared for, no exceptions.
The couple has been running an organic dairy farm for 13 years, while also raising two young daughters. Their operation is one of nearly 700 family farms in the northeast that sell their milk to Horizon.
The organic label on their product fetches them a higher and steadier price than conventional milk, the latter of which can be a volatile and unpredictable market. But that doesn’t mean they are much farther ahead than many of Vermont’s dairy farmers, most of whom struggle to make ends meet and view their profession as a labor of love, rather than a way to get rich – or even pay their bills.
And that’s in a healthy market. In the face of COVID-19, prices all along the Ackermann farm’s supply chain are going up, for things like cleaners, udder dips, medicines, and tractor parts. All of which is essential gear to keep their cows healthy, fed and producing.
Recently, the couple paid $400 more than usual for sawdust, a necessary bedding material, because it was harder to get and the trucker had to travel farther to get it. All of the rising costs reflect manufacturers and suppliers who are covering their own rising costs of production. So, as any business person would, they pass those rising costs on to the customers.
But it all stops at the farm.
Even though the Ackermanns’ costs for production are rising, they have no one to pass those costs on to. Milk companies purchase milk from farms in standard year-long contracts with no wiggle room to adjust the price to cover the farm’s rising costs.
“What do we do?” asks Sara rhetorically. “We have no choice but to suck it up and pay more. We don’t just go without. We have to have that part to run our tractor to feed the cows, to make the feed, or else the cows will die.” And, she says, they can’t just take time off and wait for the price to come down – the cows have to be milked every day.
Many who don’t understand farming ask: Why do you keep farming if it’s so bad? It’s a question the Ackermanns have grappled with many times. Almost every dairy farmer has been forced to ask this of themselves in recent years, as costs go up and milk prices continue to turn downward.
“I can only speak for myself and my family when I answer this, but I’m willing to bet there are many that feel this way,” explains Sara. “Dairy farming is our life. It’s not a job. It is a part of our identity. It’s who we are.”
The idea of closing down brings up strong emotions for her family.
“The mere thought of the cows loading that cattle truck makes you sick to your stomach,” she says. “The thought of the complete silence in the barn is enough to make your ears ring. The thought of hay fields and pastures grown up to weeds brings tears to your eyes.”
Sara said she worries for dairy farmers – not just her own family, but all of them. She posts frequently on her Facebook page to share stories of what life is like on the farm to raise awareness. She has a large audience and her reach is broad; her stories are heartfelt and impactful.
The bottom line, she says, is farmers finish last. Their cost of production is going up, and they have no choice but to spend the money – which they don’t have – or go out of business.
“We can’t request more money, so we lose. Every single day, we lose,” she says.
She says there is not much more that farming families like hers can do. They’re dropping fast and, in fact, Vermont lost 48 dairy farms last year, with the greatest loss among family farms with 200 cows or less, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s data. The trend has been downward for years.
Sara reflects on her family farm closing, like so many others have.
“Do you have any idea what that would look like?” she asks. “What this state, kingdom, country would look like without us? If things keep up, we will all find out.”