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To Keep Operating, New England Dairy Farm Looks To 'Milking Robots,' Tax Credits

This Thanksgiving, when scooping ice cream on top of warm apple pie, some Massachusetts lawmakers’ thoughts might turn to tax credits for dairy farmers. They would be expanded under a measure under consideration in the legislature.

Given the state's fiscal situation, it isn't expected to become law anytime soon.

But with milk prices down, I headed to Hatfield, Massachusetts, to check in with Lucinda and Darryl Williams at Luther Belden Farm -- which was founded about 350 years ago.

Lucinda Williams: So this farm has been in the Belden family since 1661. members of the family been farming the land. And our son Jackson is farming with us, and he is the 13th generation of Belden family to be on this land.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: How many cows are you milking now? And what is that system over there?

Darryl Williams: We are currently milking about 155 cows in our new barn -- it's a 180-stall barn. We have two milking robots. Each milking robot can milk about 60 cows apiece, and — actually, I shouldn't call it a milking robot. It’s a voluntary milking system. The cows go and milk themselves. It's been phenomenal. It's our way of being ready for the next generation, investing in the next generation, being able to farm here in western Mass.

And so where does the milk go?

DW: Our milk, right now, mostly goes to Guida's Dairy down in New Britain [Connecticut]. But we are proud AgriMark Cabot members, so our milk can be made into ice cream. It can be made into fluid milk, powder, Cabot butter, a multitude of things. 

Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR
Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield, Massachusetts.

Milk consumption is down, nationally, and milk prices are also down. And [State Rep.] Steve Kulick has filed a bill. It’s had some momentum in the past couple months. Right now it's sitting in Ways and Means. It would kind of bolster that milk price right now. What would that do here? 

LW: So that's the dairy tax credit. And we do currently have a dairy tax credit, so it would be to increase that. It does make a difference to us now to have that. The dairy tax credit is when the price of milk that we are paid falls below the cost it takes us to make a gallon of milk. That's when the dairy tax credit kicks in. 

When, on paper, you are legitimately losing money, that's when that kicks in.

DW: Absolutely. That is true. 

LW: So we're not looking for money when we're doing okay, and that's our goal.

DW: And the other important thing to point out about it is that is designed to help with our expenses. It is not designed for us to buy a new pickup truck, a new tractor. This is helping us pay our feed bill, our electric bill, our town taxes. It's for expenses, not for capital.

Darryl Williams demonstrates milking equipment at Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR
Darryl Williams demonstrates milking equipment at Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield, Massachusetts.

A little disclosure here: I was a dairy farmer until the early 1990s, and we don't do it anymore, but when we got out of farming, there were still way over 800 or 900 dairy farms in Massachusetts. And there's just nowhere near those numbers nowadays.

LW: No, we're at, uh...

DW: 150.

LW: Yeah. Oh, I heard it was 148, but yeah, it's -- the numbers are small.

DW: I Just wanted to add, the dairy tax credit that Rep. Kulik is a co-sponsor of — that started in 2009. And actually, that has helped stem the tide of producers leaving the industry. Now, when Lucinda and I go to meetings of our cooperative, and other farm organizations, we see young people at the table. And I say that's a great thing for New England, to see these young people that are going back to the farm.

This facility we are standing in now is a recent addition to your farm. It looks like you've invested a lot in technological improvements, probably a lot of money in that. How confident are you in the future of dairying in western Massachusetts? 

LW: So, that's really hard. It is a difficult thing, because you know, you never go into farming for the time off or the money, right? But there are other intrinsic values and other perks to the job. If we didn't believe that there was a future, that people would want a local, nutritious product, we certainly would not have made this kind of investment.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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