FRANKLIN COUNTY, Vt. — Transition. Talk to anyone involved in the Vermont dairy industry about where it stands today and the conversations almost always lead to that word.
"It’s nothing new. Nothing has ever stood still in farming,” said Terry Magnan, of Sheldon, Vt., who owns Diamond Hill Custom Heifers with his wife, Joanne.
Terry Magnan was 21 when he and Joanne bought their East Sheldon Road dairy farm in 1978. They had 112 head and milked 70. When they stopped milking in 1994 and launched Diamond Hill, they had 500 head.
“The barn needed so many renovations that we needed to make a decision about what to do,” Joanne Magnan recalled.
Today, Diamond Hill raises and artificially breeds about 2,200 heifers. As expanding dairy farms invest more time and money into milk production, the Magnans’ business has also grown.
Their entire operation, which also includes a compost facility, spans about 600 acres of land on three farms in the Franklin County towns of Sheldon, Enosburgh and Berkshire. The Magnans employ five people, including two of their three sons.
Is Terry Magnan glad his milking days are behind him?
“Yeah,” he said with a guttural sigh of relief. “I didn’t mind the cows. It was everything else.”
Twenty years ago, there were 11 dairy farms on East Sheldon Road within a six-mile radius. Today, there are four. Those numbers reflect what’s happening in Vermont as the number of dairy farms are in decline, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In 2007, the state had 1,129 active dairy farms — a 4 percent dip from the previous year. By 2012, Vermont had made national headlines with 995 farms; for the first time in state history, the number of dairy farms had dropped below 1,000.
In August, Vermont had 926 farms said Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
According to Bothfeld, while the number of Vermont farms on record has declined, the number of cows has remained stable and farmers have consistently produced around 2.5 billion pounds of milk annually since 2003.
Also, the number of licensed dairy processing facilities has grown in Vermont from 58 in 2002 (with 29 off the farm, such as Cabot Creamery) to 97 by the end of last month; the state will break 100 by the end of this year.
“The growth has all been on-farm,” Bothfeld said.
She and others in Vermont’s dairy industry point to an increasing trend: large farms are getting larger — and producing more milk — by buying smaller operations and turning them into “satellite farms” that are part of the overall business.
“I think we’ve gone away from the little red barn on the hill with 40 cows,” said Bothfeld, who grew up on a Cabot, Vt., farm. “That’s the old model. Larger farms will purchase smaller farms and they aren’t really interested in the buildings. They want the land.”
Vermont also has 205 USDA-certified organic farms, and agritourism is at an all-time high in the state, which is at the center of the national farm-to-table, buy-local-foods movement.
High demand for Vermont farm products — from maple syrup and cheese to wine and craft beers — has also contributed to the state’s growth of on-farm processing, Bothfeld said. Farm tours and community supported agriculture (CSA) projects are also in high demand.
Vermont will always have small farms, Bothfeld said, because organic, on-farm processing is vital to the state’s booming four-season tourism industry.
“You have to keep a way to visit the farms, see the animals,” Bothfeld said. “That’s where marketing comes in. We’ve become a destination.”
Technology is also a large part of Vermont’s transitioning dairy industry. Robotic milking parlors and renewable energy projects have entered the mix.
Terry Magnan does not resent his milk-producing colleagues that have stayed in the business and have grown by purchasing smaller farms. After all, he and Joanne said, if large farms don’t buy small farms, who will?
“It’s better to keep that small farm going somehow,” Joanne Magnan said.
Keeping the dairy industry going for generations to come though might be the biggest challenge the industry faces.
“Having no one to take over the farm is the biggest challenge Vermont farmers face today,” Terry Magnan said.
The couple’s oldest son, Kelby, 37, went to school for motorcycle mechanics and worked 12 years away from Diamond Hill Custom Heifers before he returned about 4 1/2 years ago.
“I’m happy to be back,” Kelby Magnan said.
“That depends on what day it is,” Terry Magnan joked.
Terry and Joanne Magnan have not talked to their sons about eventually transitioning the farm.
“It depends on who kicks the bucket first,” Kelby Magnan said.
He nudged his father’s arm, and they shared a laugh.