Farmers work to keep landmark dairy operating

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(Host) A group of Brattleboro farmers is working on a plan to keep a landmark dairy farm in operation.

The Windham Foundation, which owns the former Brattleboro Retreat Farm, wants to build a new cheese plant there.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Retreat farm manager Alan Smith has seen a lot of changes around this cluster of red barns at the edge of Brattleboro on Route 30.

When he came here as a farm hand in 1971, psychiatric patients from the Brattleboro Retreat still helped with chores.

(Smith) “And the farm produced most of the needs of the Retreat.”

(Keese) Now he and his family run a much-visited petting farm and manage a herd of 100 prize Holstein milkers. They hit a rough patch in 2001. That was when the Brattleboro Retreat announced a plan to sell the farm and develop the land.

The news sparked a public outcry. Eventually the Windham Foundation stepped in and bought the farm. With help from a conservation group and lots of public donations they conserved about 400 acres – All except the dairy operation, which the Windham Foundation planned to run to help support its charitable work.

But Stephan Morse, the Foundation’s executive director, says the farm has lost money – about 3 and a half million dollars in five years.

At the same time, the Foundation’s Grafton Village Cheese Company was making lots of money and needed to expand.

(Morse) “So it just seemed sensible for us to decide to build the new cheese plant at the site of the Retreat Farm. And we thought we were contributing more to Vermont agriculture and Vermont conservation by buying another 15 million pounds of Vermont milk at the new plant even if it meant that we had to sacrifice our small dairy operation in Brattleboro.”

(Keese) Morse says he expected some public dismay.

(Morse) “But I guess I would have to confess that I am surprised at the depth of it.”

(Keese) Alan Smith says he’s surprised too.

(Smith) “I thought maybe people were getting a little bit sick of trying to keep this farm going, you know, because of what happened five years ago. But now everybody’s coming right back out and then some to support us.”

(Keese) The Windham foundation wants nothing to do with the dairy operation. But it would like the agriculture advisory board’s support. The board works with local officials on ways to preserve farming in town.

Board member Jay Bailey says he believes the farmers can figure out a way to make the farm work.

(Bailey) “Particularly with history of the commitment that was made by everyone five years ago, we shouldn’t have to be doing it again, but we are. And we support the cheese plant with the cows, with a functioning dairy farm open to the public there that will augment their sale of cheese and provide a great service to all of us in having a farm that is open to the public.”

(Keese) The Foundation has given the farmers until the end of this week to produce a workable proposal. The farmers say they’ll have one soon, but maybe not that soon.

Meanwhile the foundation has begun seeking town approvals for the cheese plant. But Morse says without the ag committee’s support, the foundation might start looking for another location.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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