ADDISON COUNTY — Leonard Barrett can remember when he moved to his East Street farm in Bridport in 1970 with his parents and his brother. There were eight dairy farms on the street.
Today, his is the last one. By the end of next week, there won’t be any.
Across the nation, a confluence of factors is putting family-owned dairies — long the backbone of many rural American towns — out of business.
Here in Addison County, some lifelong farmers have had to come to terms with the fact that the business they love is no longer a financially viable option.
Barrett and his wife, Linda, recently made the decision to sell their land and auction their equipment, and their 130 head of mature Holsteins and 90 youngstock. The auction will be held on Oct. 17, at 10 a.m.
Tom Wisnowski, the owner and operator of Addison County Commission Sales in East Middlebury, is managing the sale.
“What’s happening now is that the larger farms are getting bigger,” Wisnowski said. “They’re absorbing the land. It’s not so much about the facilities, but the land base.”
Things have certainly changed since Barrett began working his farm four decades ago.
“Now, I’m surrounded by all sides by (the Audets’) Blue Spruce (Farm),” Barrett pointed out with a laugh. He was quick to add that he didn’t hold it against his neighbors, but he noted that the Audets milk a lot more cows than he does.
“The hundred-cow farm is going by the wayside in a hurry,” he said.
“It’s a tough spot to be in,” acknowledged Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. She noted that the number of dairy cow farms statewide has dropped from 996 last year to 974 in September. Of the 22 farms that closed, nine were in Addison County.
“If you’re less than 70 cows, one or one-and-a-half people can manage a farm of that size,” she said. “When you get to 500, 600 cows it’s a different scale. It’s more mechanized. Farms tend to grow, the question is whether they can make the leap.”
The agency does not collect data based on herd size.
But Barrett had always wanted to stay small.
“I never wanted to get big like some farmers do,” he said.
He recalled a recent meeting with a young farmer from Massachusetts, who was considering purchasing some of Barrett’s youngstock.
“I like seeing that,” Barrett said. “But if they don’t do something down in Washington, he’s going to be in the same boat.”
FEDERAL DAIRY POLICY
Washington has been especially callous toward dairy farmers lately, some say. Last Sunday, the federal law that provided a safety net of sorts for dairy farmers expired because the U.S. House failed to pass a new farm bill.
“I’m very disappointed with our people in Washington, D.C.,” Barrett said. “Because I do think there are solutions to our problems, I believe there’s got be a supply management program. But the party lines — they dig a hole. And they’re not giving up. There’s no common sense over there anymore.”
A new farm bill had stalled in the House of Representatives when parties deadlocked over crop subsidies and proposed cuts to nutrition programs. Although a House committee gave bipartisan approval to the bill, Congress adjourned before the bill went to the floor for a vote. The next chance for Congress to vote on a farm bill is after the General Election.
In the meantime, family farms are having a tough year. Like New Haven farmer Paul Audy and Cornwall farmer John Roberts, who were profiled in the Oct. 1 edition of the Addison Independent, Barrett said he feels the burden of skyrocketing grain prices caused by the drought out West, increased energy costs and plummeting milk prices.
“I feel like I was forced out (of dairy farming),” Barrett said.
Age also plays a role.
For Barrett, who at 58 years old is a Bridport selectman, chairman of the UD-3 school board and a Middlebury Union High School football booster in his spare time, the decision to get out of farming was a hard one, but necessary.
“This summer was time,” he said. “I’ve been trying to make that decision for a stretch, then when the price of feed skyrocketed, I said ‘No. You know what? I’m tired. And I don’t want to fight it any more.’”
More than the number of farms on the road as changed since Barrett started farming. “When I was a kid, you hand-baled hay,” he recalled with a smile. The technology kept advancing over decades, but for the most part, family farms could keep up with the modernization.
Then, Barrett remembered, around five years ago the cost of equipment grew so drastically that a lot of farms began custom-hiring equipment instead of buying their own.
“That was maybe one of my mistakes in the last four years,” he said. “Mother Nature plays a big role.”
When feed is ready, all of the farmers start renting equipment to harvest, and there’s not enough to go around. By the time some farmers get the equipment there, portions of the feed go bad, he said.
He is also troubled by the decline of young Americans interested in farm work.
“We can not find a physical American that wants to come in and milk cows for seven or eight hours,” explained Barrett, who has never used migrant labor. “It’s just not there today.”
“There wasn’t enough money there to grasp the younger generation today,” he said. “There just isn’t.”
He and his wife have four children: two daughters and two sons. One of his sons works at the Cabot cheese plant as a foreman and pitches in often, but Barrett knows that Cabot offers a better opportunity.
“That’s where I want him to go,” Barrett said decisively. “Go where the money’s at.”
“I’m sad,” he said simply. “I really am. But I know I made the right decision.”
A NEW CHAPTER
But for Leonard and Linda Barrett, who is an administrative secretary at Bridport Central School, closing the doors of their dairy operation will likely open many new ones.
The couple, widely known and respected for their involvement in the community, plan to stay in the Bridport area.
“She loves her job, she really does,” Leonard Barrett said with a smile.
He has quite a few things on his plate, as well.
“Leonard’s one of the most well-known, respected farmers in the area,” Wisnowski said. “And he has been since the 1970s.”
Aside from his dedicated involvement on the selectboard and school board — “Leonard is on just about every committee there is,” declared Marcy Wisnowski, Tom’s wife — Barrett is an avid Tiger football fan, and he has big plans for the high school athletics field.
He started a committee last year to get artificial turf for the field.
“I want to get that fired up again,” he said. “I want to make that happen within two years.”
Tiger football is a big part of Barrett’s life. “There’s a lot of camaraderie there that goes back a lot of years,” he explained, recalling when he was inducted into the MUHS/MHS Hall of Fame last year. Three kids who had gone through the MUHS football program years ago, who now live out West, got wind of the news, and sent him a card to congratulate them.
He and Linda plan to travel more, too. Barrett said they had always planned to work until they were 65, and then travel. Their two daughters live in North Carolina, and the couple looks forward to visiting them at Thanksgiving.
Both native Vermonters, Leonard and Linda met when they were young. He and his family were already on the East Street farm; she was a dairy farmer’s daughter from Weybridge.
He took her to her senior prom on their first date, and it took him a month and a half afterwards to work up the courage to ask her out again.
“I was soft-spoken,” he recalled with a smile. “My sisters would ask, and I’d say, ‘Well, I’m not sure what she’s thinking.’”
Their second date was to a square dance; they were married soon after.
The two have worked around the farm’s schedule since then. They have taken just four vacations since their wedding.
They plan to travel next summer, during Linda’s summer vacation.
Barrett is looking forward to the upcoming chapter in their lives.
“I think I could enjoy having weekends off,” he joked. “I’m not sure, but I think I’m old enough now where I might be able to enjoy that a little bit.”