By NOAH BAUSTIN
For the Gazette
Pasture Day is Denise Barstow’s favorite time on the farm.
The event is an annual celebration of spring at Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley. In a normal year, hundreds of people gather on the farm to watch the heifers celebrate their first taste of fresh grass in months.
“They kick up their feet and run around in the green grass. It’s worth everyone seeing,” Barstow said recently.
Last week, Barstow’s cows flooded into the fields with as much enthusiasm as always. But this time, to a much smaller audience.
“We had to do it on Facebook live. It felt a little like I was just talking to myself and my phone,” Barstow said with a laugh. “It was so weird.” – you can watch the video here.
Barstow’s Longview Farm is in its 214th year of operation. Today, the business is run by the sixth and seventh generations of farmers in the Barstow family. There are about 600 cows on the farm, with around 300 being milked at any given time. Barstow’s is a member of Agri-Mark, a farmer-owned cooperative with a milk processing plant in West Springfield, where milk from local farms is aggregated with milk from throughout the region and made into Cabot butter and other dairy products.
The farm’s motto is “Looking forward since 1806.” But it’s a tough time to look forward as a wholesale dairy farm.
“Milk prices are scary,” Barstow explained.
Right now, Barstow’s is receiving $15 for every 100 pounds of milk they sell. One hundred pounds of milk is 11.6 gallons.
“Our break even is $22 per hundredweight. We’re operating in the red,” Barstow said.
“It’s not something we haven’t done before. There’s this fluctuation in the dairy industry where some years are fine, and some are horrible. But we’re coming off about five years of milk prices being in a really bad situation.”
Wholesale dairy farms are paid different rates depending on the quality of their milk, based on factors such as butterfat and protein content. But Barstow explained that even with price fluctuations among dairy farms, milk prices are dangerously low across the board.
“I would say it’s a safe bet that no dairy farm are operating above their break even right now,” she said.
A low milk price can become a vicious cycle that builds upon itself.
“The only way to make more money is to make more milk,” Barstow explained. “But if all the dairy farmers increase their production, the supply gets larger, while the demand remains the same. That can drive prices even lower.”
That’s why, before the pandemic, Cabot had been instituting a supply management system for its members that would create incentives to prevent overproduction. The system was working, and Barstow’s was receiving a much better milk price just a few months ago, up at $20 per hundredweight.
When social distancing measures became widespread, dairy demand plummeted.
“We’ve lost 50% of our market with restaurants not open and universities and institutions closed,” Barstow said.
To stabilize prices in the face of this sudden decline in demand, Cabot asked farmers to reduce production. Barstow’s had no choice but to sell off some of their cows.
“It was a really sad day,” Barstow said. “It’s been really stressful to do the math and to figure out how to do this in a way that’s sustainable.”
The lowest milk price Barstow has ever seen was $12 per hundredweight in the early 2000s. It was during that crisis that the family decided to diversify the farm. Over the decade that followed, they started selling beef and compost, installed an anaerobic digester, and opened a farm store.
That farm store, Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery, has been a saving grace during the pandemic.
“We have been overwhelmed with support from our community,” Barstow said.
People thought it was a little odd when Barstow’s installed a drive-thru window on the farm stand back when it opened in 2008.
“Well now we are so glad that we have it!” Barstow said.
Throughout the pandemic, Barstow and her staff have been able to continue providing the community with food using a low-contact system at the drive-thru. The store has plenty of groceries in stock, including local asparagus from Boisvert Farm, local produce from Four Rex Farm, and a full range of dairy products, fresh baked goods, prepared foods and more. Customers are encouraged to call ahead for large orders.
It’s a tough moment for dairy farmers. But on dairy farms across the Valley, the corn is planted, and hay seed will be going into the ground soon. These farmers are forging ahead to feed our community, even as it remains unclear when milk prices will bounce back.
In return, Barstow and other dairy farmers are asking for the community’s support through the Give a Gallon Campaign. When you donate to Give a Gallon, it matches your ZIP code with the nearest food bank and provides them with vouchers to purchase local milk.
“Your contribution feeds kids and families in need during this unprecedented time and helps to sustain your local dairy farms who are putting food on the table,” Barstow said.
To donate, visit giveagallon.com.
Meanwhile, the Barstow family will keep innovating to make sure the farm continues to play its essential role in the Valley community.
“Every decision that we make on this farm, we’re making for the next 100 years,” Barstow said. “We want to sustain this family business for generations to come.”
Noah Baustin is the communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).