Iowa Public Television


Cure for the Dairy Doldrums

posted on April 9, 2004

Prices at the farm gate for Class One fluid milk are on the rise. Milk prices have jumped $2.60 a hundredweight just since February ... and are more than $5.00 a hundredweight above year-ago levels. That's welcome news for dairy producers, who in recent years have sustained record low prices.

Indeed, in farm country, there are few who better epitomize the agrarian notion of long days and hard work than dairy farmers. Fortunately for Vermont dairy producers, there's help in the form of a cooperative venture that offers them a day off from work. David Miller explains.


Cure for the Dairy Doldrums

Jeff Mason, is preparing for evening milking at Missisquoi (Mis-SIS-quoi) Valley View Farm. When he is finished, 140 Ayrshire cows will have been milked and hayed. But the animals are not his and neither is the farm. Guy Lussier (Lew-SHEAR), who owns this Northern, Vermont, operation, along with his brother Mark, is several states away in Kentucky watching his daughter participate in a 4-H event.

How was Lussier (Lew-SHEAR) able to make time for the trip? He took advantage of a milking relief program offered by the Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative.

Paul Seiler (SIGH'-ler) is the manager of the Labor Service.

Paul Seiler, Manager, Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative: "I think the important thing is that it's a business and that if the farmer or the farmer and his wife are running themselves ragged that that just leads to making bad business decisions, sometimes you have to step back and look at something from a distance or just feel a little bit relieved and have a little down time and then you can come back to the table and make some different decisions, which would then maybe be positive ones for your operation."

Seiler has experience as a dairyman, spending most of the past 20 years milking cows in the U.S. and Europe. Coupled with his commitment to the Service, is the work he does on his own operation near Cornwall, Vermont. Here on his Old Wooster Farm, he milks 30 cows of his own.

For a one time fee of $50, a farmer can join the cooperative and get a break from a job that normally does not come with any holidays or vacations; just the grind of going to the barn twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If a farmer is interested in getting some full-time help, the Service will place a qualified candidate for a $200 finders fee.

Paul Seiler, Manager, Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative: "And if you can do that by having somebody come in and taking over and you don't have to baby-sit them and you know that the person is running it like you would, then you can take the time off. And I think once you build that in on a regular type basis, just to get a little break from the farm."

Joe Severy is one of 60 people who, so far, have paid the $50 fee to become a member of the cooperative. When Severy needs a break from milking his 48 cows, and taking care of an additional 37 animals that make up his herd, he calls the Service.

Joe Severy, Waters Run Farm: "Well, I realize that this is an expense that I need to incur, I need to get away from my farm, be with my family, do all the things that everybody does when they get away from the farm but a farm runs 24/7 and I'm not done on Friday afternoon and go back Monday morning. And we need to vacation."

Severy, a third generation dairyman, had always been able to get away from his Waters Run Farm near Cornwall, Vermont, but when it looked like the man he normally used for relief might retire he decided it was time to make other plans.

For Severy, the real issue was having someone he trusted running the operation while he was away.

Joe Severy, Waters Run Farm: "It's also kind of a tough job for somebody to come in and take over someone's farm, it's a lot of responsibility. And every farm runs different so they have to have a varied level of abilities, no two farms are the same."

When the Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative started four years ago, the group merely referred qualified help to farmers for either temporary or permanent placement. After paying the appropriate fee, the farmer would pay the hired hand directly.

But the board of directors felt this arrangement was not conducive to attracting both new members and more laborers so changes were made. Those changes include billing farmers directly for services rendered, one of the more unique aspects of the cooperative, acquisition of two insurance policies. Now, when a relief worker goes into the field they insured against any accidental property damage compensation insurance. and are covered by workers Even with the improvements, the Service has only been able to attract a labor pool that fluctuates between six and eight qualified people.

For every hour worked, a farmer pays $20. $15 of that amount is paid to the laborer, $3 covers insurance, and the rest goes to the cooperative for administrative costs.

Seiler estimates that, if fully funded the annual operating budget for the Service is around $50 thousand but not all of the line items are fully funded. The single largest expense is the $6 thousand spent on the two insurance policies. But board members volunteer their time and Selier has even refused his $10 thousand dollar salary as way to keep the fledging cooperative alive.

In the future, Seiler hopes he can find more skilled people to handle the work load.

Paul Seiler, Manager, Vermont Farm Labor Service Cooperative: "... ag labor is just a difficult niche to fill and it's a specialized type of labor. Long hours, generally less pay and it needs a certain skill to it ...The future, I hope to see that somewhere down the road we do get a little money, enough money to be able to continue. Right now we're still making placements, either part-time or making full-time connections."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller


Tags: agriculture co-op dairy milk news