Temporary workers bolster small farms

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(Host) About 80% of Vermont’s agricultural income is dairy related, so it’s vital for the state’s economy to help dairy farmers stay in business. But what happens when a farmer becomes sick or injured and can’t milk the cows? For many small farmers such a scenario can be disastrous.

But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, now farmers who need time off can call the Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative for help.

(Sound of cows mooing.)

(Keck) Sandy Jewell stands amid four black and white calves at her barn in Shoreham.

(Sandy Jewell) “This is the time of the year when we have a lot of calves. Today, we had one and yesterday we had three calves. And that’s why you’re hearing that mooing, ‘cuz the mommy’s hollering for her baby and the baby’s talking back to her.”

(Keck) Sandy and her husband, Kevin, milk over 65 cows twice a day and farm nearly 500 acres.

(Kevin Jewell) “There’s a total of about 180 animals around the farm to take care of, so it’s not a five-minute job of taking care of stuff. It takes time to get everyone fed and cleaned.”

(Keck) Kevin Jewell says he hadn’t taken a day off in five years, until he got sick. Jewell was hospitalized a few months back with viral meningitis and he couldn’t work for weeks. Kevin’s brother initially helped with the milking, but after two weeks he had to get back to his own job. A friend told the Jewell’s about the Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative and Sandy says within a few days of calling, they had experienced workers to help with the chores.

(Sandy Jewell) “I can’t say how much a load they took off. Because in my mind, at one point I was thinking that we were going to have to sell out here ‘cuz there’s just no way I can do all of this and be with him.”

(Keck) The Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative was created by a group of farmers who saw the need for quality part-time help. Rick LaVite is a former dairy farmer who now works for the University of Vermont Extension in Rutland.

(LaVite) “A couple generations ago, everybody was farming and if somebody was hurt the neighbors would pitch in. But now if you go down the road, there’s a bigger and bigger distance between one farm to the next. Add to that that people are not going into farming generation after generation. So Uncle Joe and Cousin Fred aren’t there to help. We’re further and further removed from agriculture.”

(Keck) LaVite got the idea for the labor service from a program he saw in Ireland. He thought the concept would work well in Vermont and he began talking about it at various meetings with farmers.

(LaVite) “And finally a group of farmers said, ‘Let’s just do it.'”

(Keck) A steering committee was formed in 1998 and the program was gradually developed. A $25,000 one-time allocation from the state helped pay for start up costs and an administrator. Paul Seiler, a dairy farmer in Shoreham, has been managing the Labor Service Cooperative since January. He’s focused his efforts on getting the program up and running in Addison County.

(Seiler) “Now we’ve had over 700 billable hours. Which starting from scratch, over a three to four month period is quite a lot. And this is just in Addison County.”

(Keck) Seiler says one of the biggest challenges is finding experienced, reliable people to do the work.

(Seiler) “Most farmers are very particular about their cattle. They’re worried about someone else milking them differently from how they milk them. They’re worried about mastitis or cattle sickness or just loss of milk in general.”

(Keck) Seiler now has a list of about six to eight people he can call to do relief milking and he says they’re usually paid about $15 an hour. Farmers must also pay two dollars an hour in administrative fees to the labor service. While the hourly costs are somewhat high, Seiler says most farmers are willing to pay for good help. Seiler says the tough part is keeping the relief milkers available when demand is sporadic. Good communication, he says, is key, so he calls and visits his work force on a regular basis.

(Seiler talking with Arlyn Footes) “So you know Josh got in that car accident… I didn’t know who it was. So he will be out of commission for a while. He was supposed to be at Watermen’s next week so someone has to be down at Seaferts. I need someone to go down there.”

(Keck) On this particular morning, Seiler is making a house call, checking in with one of his most experienced part timers – Arlyn Footes. Footes is a 74-year-old retired dairy farmer from Shoreham.

(Footes) “I want to do something and it’s nice to do it and not be tied down to it. You can do it when you want to. It’s in your blood, once you’re a farmer you’re always a farmer.”

(Keck) When his father and grandfather farmed, Footes says there were plenty of neighbors to help in a crisis. But, he says, it’s different now.

(Footes) “There was a fella down here in Shoreham, he had to go in and have his knee done and he was pretty sure he was going to have to sell his cows because he was going to be laid up for six months because he wasn’t going to be able to do his chores. I’ve known of other people who have gone in for an operation or something and didn’t have any help and they’ve had to sell their cows.”

(Keck) Footes has also noticed a change in attitude. He says young people who are going into farming today aren’t willing to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week anymore. They want to be able to take a vacation, he says and have more time for their family.

(Sound of Footes opening a barn door, calling to his cows.)While he no longer milks his own cows, Footes still loves to raise them. He has about 50 replacement cows that graze near his barn.

(Footes) “I just like seeing them growing. Yep, I like to buy ’em as small calves and just watch them grow.”

(Keck) Footes walks down the road from his barn to his house and gestures out across his fields with his arms.

(Footes) “It’s too bad you know? Fifty years ago there was probably 35 to 40 farms here in the town of Cornwall. Now there’s four. People have gone out of business. Farms are gone and houses come up. I just think that – that I hope that these small farms won’t all go out. I really hate to see these big farms take over.”
(Keck) “Do you feel like you’re helping?”
(Footes) “Yes I do.”

(Keck) Rick LaVite of the University of Vermont Extension says Arlyn Footes and the Vermont Farm Labor Service Co-op are not only helping small farmers stay in business, they’re helping to preserve Vermont’s natural landscape.

(LaVite) “Everybody that you talk to on the street will tell you that we want our farms to stay. Most of them are removed from it. They’ve never done that work before. It’s long hours, it’s a way of life and it’s a business. And if there’s not somebody to come out to the farm for that day off, that vacation, that time when you get hurt and need someone to continue working on the business to keep it going. Some of our farmers are just going to say enough’s enough and they’ll stop farming.”

(Keck) While LaVite says there’s definitely a demand for the labor service, organizers admit they’ll need more money to stay in business and expand to other parts of Vermont. The state says it won’t help, so the group has asked agricultural related businesses and farmers themselves for assistance. Seiler says they’ve also applied for private grants. Manager Paul Seiler says with today’s low milk prices and the sluggish economy, small farmers need all the help they can get.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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