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Surviving the Decline of the New Hampshire Dairy Industry

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Hannah McCarthy/NHPR
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  A lot of dairy farmers are born into the business. But Jamie Robinson calls his path "the old fashioned way." He married into it. Roberston and his wife, Heather, are the fourth generation to work Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. Their children are already planning to follow suit. But over the years, there have been plenty of opportunities to get out of the business if they wanted to.

"You know," Roberston says, giving a nearby cow an absentminded pat, "when you’ve been in Southern New England, your farm’s been worth a lot for a long time, and if you didn’t want to sell it for houses and go work at another job, and you stayed milking cows, you’re a pretty serious dairy farmer."

Choosing to stick with family farm is a much tougher decision today. The global milk market is a complicated thing, but the bottom line is that milk from European farms has been flooding the U.S market, and driving prices down. Meanwhile, the regional drought has been driving feed prices up. This means New England dairy farmers are in a tight bind.

"That’s hard in every industry," Robertson owns, but explains that the dairy business comes with an extra caveat. "What’s really hard about it in the dairy industry is that we can’t shut our cows off."

What farmers can do, when profits run dry, is sell their herd off for beef, and close up shop as dairies. Between January and October of this year, 10 of New Hampshire’s 134 dairies failed to register as licensed milk producers.

Robertson is hopeful that he and his family will continue to weather this “perfect storm.” But the shift in the state bothers him.

"I miss the fact that there aren’t five dairy farms in Hopkinton anymore, there’s just two of us. As a dairy farmer, that’s something that doesn’t feel right," Robertson shrugs, "Now, I’m not sure that’s the entire state’s viewpoint, either. I am a dairy farmer. I like the smell of the cows."

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Credit Hannah McCarthy/NHPR
Jamie and Heather Robertson

There are New Hampshire legislators who are of the same mind. A dairy farmer’s relief fund of 3.6 million dollars is currently being debated at the State House, and, if passed, will be distributed to farmers based on how severely their feed was impacted by the drought.

But Robertson is right. Not everyone in the state agrees with that move.

"This is where is begins," says State Representative David Bates, "When people are moved by emotional pleas and they feel we have to do something for those that have been impacted by circumstances beyond your control."

Bates, a rep from Windham, has been wary of the bailout since it was first proposed. He doesn’t believe it’s the job of the government to rescue failing businesses.

Those closer to the industry, not surprisingly, have a different view. Doug DiMento has worked with Agri-Mark, a New England dairy Co-Op, for 34 years. He sees the relief program as way to aid an integral local industry.

"I think a bailout helps every farm. It won't only help their farm, it will help other businesses that help support their farm," DiMento explains, "I think those farmers are in business right now have found a way to be resourceful because these prices have been up and down like this for the last ten years."

DiMento thinks of helping the dairy farmer as helping the community as a whole. These farms, he argues, benefit other local businesses, are a boon to their towns when paying property tax, and keep milk -- which is expensive to transport -- local. That, and who is going to start a dairy farm these days?

"How many kids say, let me think about working 365 days a year and not going on vacation cause I gotta be at five in the morning, five at night, every day."

Whether the farmers who have chosen that lifestyle will manage to catch a break is up to legislators, when they vote sometime this winter.

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