(Host) For all its traditions, dairy farming is constantly changing. New technology, stricter regulations, and fluctuating milk prices all challenge the survival.
For one Vermont farm the key to success has been to follow a course set nearly three quarters of a century ago by its founders.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports:
(Zind) Once upon a time every dairy farmer was also a milk processor and a milk retailer.
In the early 1900s, before pasteurization and bulk tanks, raw milk quickly went from the cow to the bottle to the customer. Millicent Rooney remembers working on her parents’ farm in Weybridge and delivering milk to neighbors’ homes.
(Rooney) “Couple summers I did it with a friend out of a pickup truck. We’d throw ice on the top of the bottles and put a tarp over it and go off and deliver our milk.”
(Zind) In the late 1930s a brucellosis scare raised concerns among the Rooney’s customers about raw milk. So they bought a small pasteurizer.
(Rooney) “When we first put pasteurized milk on the market, people didn’t like it. I don’t blame them. It tasted cooked.”
(Zind) The decision to buy the pasteurizer was the first step. As dairy farming changed and technology improved, Rooney’s father, Richard, continued to adapt.
(Rooney) “He was very foresighted. We always felt that he was 20, 30 years ahead of his generation.”
(Zind) The farm grew gradually as land became available.
As they expanded, Rooney’s parents made an important decision. Rather than sell their milk to a processor, they decided to process and bottle it themselves and sell directly to stores. Jon Rooney is Millicent’s son.
(Jon Rooney) “They really felt strongly that they couldn’t just sell milk like a conventional farm. They didn’t see a future in that.”
(Zind) Monument Farms Dairy was started by Rooney’s grandparents 76 years ago with about two dozen Jersey cows. Today, the farm is still in the family, but it’s a bit bigger.
(Jon Rooney) “This is our raw receiving area. This tank holds about 5500 gallons of milk, just a little bit shy of an average day’s volume through here.”
(Zind) Jon Rooney and his two cousins Peter and Bob James are the third generation to run the farm. They milk Holsteins now, 370 of them. The farm has grown to 1600 acres, but it’s still the same in one important respect: Just as Millicent Rooney’s parents did, the family processes and sells its milk directly to stores.
Monument Farm is one of only two dairy farms in Vermont that produce, process and sell fluid cows milk. The other is Strafford Organic Creamery.
The farm’s 34 employees work in the barn, run the processing plant and deliver to stores.
Running the three parts of the business is a careful balancing act – what the cows produce and what the processing plant can bottle has to match what the trucks can deliver and sell.
Peter James runs the farm end of the business, his brother Bob is in charge of servicing the farm’s retail customers. Jon Rooney’s part of the business is the stainless steel and concrete world of the processing plant.
(Jon Rooney) “Pump whole milk through the separator and the cream is the lightest portion of the milk so it stays to the inside in this big centrifuge.”
(Zind) Doing their own processing protects Monument Farms from being buffeted too much by fluctuations in milk prices paid by the large dairy processors to Vermont’s dairy farmers – prices that sometimes dip below what it costs the farmer to produce milk.
(Peter James) “Certainly we’re more immune than today’s average dairy producer, definitely, but while we do set our own prices, we charge stores what we need to charge to stay in business, when prices are low like they are now, that certain puts some pressure on us.”
(Zind) That’s Peter James. Because of the weather, he’s struggled this year. Usually the farm produces all of its feed, but he’s buying a thousand tons of corn to get through the winter. It’s an added cost the farm will absorb in order to keep its milk price competitive.
James says when one area of the business falters, the other parts – in this case processing and sales, can take up the slack.
Most of Monument Farms retail customers are mom and pop stores from south of Middlebury to north of Burlington. The farm also sells to co-ops in Burlington, Montpelier and Middlebury.
Bob James says the appeal for the stores and their customers is the fact that the milk is locally produced. It’s possible that milk delivered in the afternoon came out of the cow in the morning.
(Bob James) “There are very few truly local dairies in Vermont now, and I think that’s a big factor with a lot of people.”
(Zind) The family says the key to their success has been to remain true to the vision of their forbears and keep the processing on the farm.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Weybridge.