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We Must Protect and Support Our Local Dairy Farms

In many parts of the US, the dairy farmer is a staple in the agricultural landscape; yet many multi-generational dairies are closing their barn doors. Solutions such as anaerobic digesters not only help farms mitigate their environmental impacts, they create new revenue streams and cost savings.

For decades, but accelerated in recent years, people in urban areas have sought greener pastures in suburbs and rural communities. Longing for a home that overlooked bucolic rolling hills and farmlands. Many of those transplants wanted to slow down and enjoy life with views of cows, chickens and anything that reminded them of what living in the “country” versus the “city” would resemble.

Yet, the very reason that brought them to the countryside is being threatened. The US is losing its family farms at a steady rate; and when a farmer wants to innovate and find alternative paths to making their businesses viable, many of these folks are saying, ‘Not in my backyard.’ However, we can’t have it both ways. If we want to have that bucolic view of farms, we must support our local farmers.

The fading landscape of the American dairy farmer

In many parts of our country, the dairy farmer is a staple in the agricultural landscape; yet many multi-generational dairies are closing their barn doors. The fluctuation of the market price for milk can be unpredictable, labor is difficult to source, and costs have risen substantially for essential items such as fertilizer and feed; and finally, the next generation of farmers have seen how hard their families have worked and struggled and are shying away from the family business.

According to the USDA’s 2011 census, the United States was home to just over 51,000 dairy farms; in 2021, there were less than 30,000 operating across the nation. This year, there will likely be even fewer dairy farms — which supply much of our nation’s milk that becomes fresh milk, cheese, yogurt and other beloved dairy foods — dotting our states.

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While many of the current generation of would-be dairy farmers saw the struggles of their parents and grandparents and are moving on to new careers, there are some that still that want to carry on the legacy. However, the next generation wants to not only raise their herd and farm sustainably — they need their farms to be financially sustainable for the generations to come. To accomplish this, they must innovate; but they sometimes face roadblocks from their own communities.

How do you achieve both?

During these last two decades, many multi-generational dairy farms have been at the epicenter of the climate change debate. The manure and burping of cows release methane; but increasingly, there are solutions — including dietary changes for cows, as well as a manure-management plan that can turn that manure into a force for good — such as renewable energy production via anaerobic digestion.

Vanguard Renewables has been working with multi-generational dairy farmers for nearly 10 years to help solve those systemic issues, while providing a steady and predictable income stream from hosting its on-farm Farm Powered® anaerobic digesters. Vanguard works to help its farm partners reduce their on-farm emissions by immediately capturing the manure generated and sending that to a sealed tank where it mixes with inedible food and beverage waste from the manufacturing sector, which would normally be dumped in the local landfill, to create a powerful tool to reduce our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels — renewable natural gas.

In addition to Vanguard’s farm partners receiving a lease payment for the land where their facilities are located, the Farm Powered process provides them with byproducts — including a low-carbon, nutrient-dense digestate for fertilizing and irrigating their croplands; as well as possible bedding for the herd — and the cost savings for the farms can be substantial.

One of Vanguard’s farm partners, Danielle Goodrich-Gingras — herdswoman and co-owner of the Goodrich Family Dairy Farm in Vermont — believes the savings from not purchasing traditional fertilizer and bedding to be around $200,000 a year; and that was before the war in Eastern Europe. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the cost for chemical fertilizers has grown exponentially as the ingredients to make fertilizer come from both Russia and Ukraine, as well as other Baltic nations. With supply chain issues facing every aspect of business, farming is no different. And those issues are raising the price of fertilizer to untenable rates.

Dairy farmers are leading the way to a more sustainable future

Dairy cooperatives such as Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and Cabot Creamery Co-operative are helping their farms to become more sustainable — both financially and environmentally.

DFA has been a leading partner in climate change solutions for over 20 years. The cooperative has set substantial sustainability goals by 2030, including a 30 percent reduction in absolute emissions. Additionally, it was the first US dairy cooperative to establish science-based targets to lower greenhouse gas emissions and early adopters of anaerobic digestion as a means to help its member farms mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. DFA is also a founding member of Vanguard’s Farm Powered Strategic Alliance (FPSA) that was launched in 2020 with Starbucks and Unilever.

Cabot is another first mover in the regenerative-agriculture and climate-solutions movement. It was the first dairy cooperative to become a certified B Corporation; and it’s dedicated to creating a closed-loop solution from farm to plant and back to the farm to create renewable energy. Cabot even takes it one step further by sending processed waste from its butter manufacturing plant in West Springfield, Massachusetts to Barstow’s Longview Dairy Farm — where it is used to create renewable energy at a Vanguard facility located on the farm, which it then purchases to power the plant. Cabot is also a proud member of the FPSA.

Closing thoughts

The US’s dairy farmers are a backbone of an industry that has defined our nation. They want to do well and do good, and are strident in their dedication to their land and our planet.

Dairy farmers often take the brunt of the ire of environmentalists; but being good stewards of their land and providing healthy, high-quality products is what they strive to accomplish. As consumers, we have lots of choices; but there is no denying that dairy foods are essential to our culinary experience.

Dairy farmers wake well before dawn and hit the hay well after the sun sets, 365 days a year. They are not the enemy of the good; they are the ones who truly understand the risks and complications that a changing climate causes. From warmer winters to hotter summers, they face a variety of challenges and continue to rise to the occasion.

So, today, let us raise a glass of cold milk — whether skim, 2 percent, or whole — and say cheers and thank you for helping to fight the good fight and for feeding our families. Vanguard doesn’t work with every dairy farmer; but it is steadfast in its mission to advocate and provide sustainable and regenerative solutions that dairy farmers need and want to keep our world safe and healthy.