September 2, 2013
This story was originally produced for North Country Public Radio.
The term sustainability is now commonplace. Everything from furniture, to travel, to shopping at Walmart is described as "sustainable." Usage has stretched so far that it's hard to say what "sustainability" really is.
Dictionary.com defines sustainability as "supporting long term ecological balance." And Wikipedia says it is "the capacity to endure." We visited two North Country dairy farms, each with a very different philosophy, but both claiming to be sustainable.
Technology and Efficiency
The owner of one of the North Country’s larger dairies thinks he has a little secret. Sandy Stauffer says small, organic farms, aren’t sustainable.
“People don’t believe this, but it’s true. It’s probably less sustainable than what we have here.”
A video slideshow of Sandy and Aaron Stauffer
What Stauffer and his son have is a 1,500 head dairy that’s in continuous milking mode. Cows line up three times a day in the computerized milking parlor. Workers connect their udders to a machine, and the system knows exactly how much milk to expect from each cow.
The dairy has 18 full-time employees, plus part-time seasonal labor.
“To me, sustainability is all about supporting yourself, and those who work for you. And also keeping the land in good condition for future generations. That’s sustainability.”
Stauffer says things are going pretty well at the farm these days. Over the past 10 years, they’ve grown considerably. They purchased a neighboring farm, added more than 1,000 cows, and built a new facility to house and milk them.
When they’re not hooked up to the milking machine, the cows are in the open air barn. Stauffer wants every mouthful they eat to be exactly the same – with parts of corn, hay and cotton seed. The herd also gets injections of recombinant bovine growth hormones, or RBST. Sandy Stauffer’s son Aaron, 30, says it increases milk production by 10 percent.
“It makes them a more efficient cow. We will produce more milk with less feed and less poop by using BST.”
The Stauffer’s say they use less land to produce more milk more efficiently than smaller farms, and that makes them a more sustainable operation.
Efficiency leads to oversupply and low prices
Organic farmer Bob Zufall agrees, bigger farms are more efficient.
“Yes, absolutely, but at what expense?”
Zufall owns a 230 head farm in Lisbon. He questions whether modern efficiencies are good for dairy prices, and the industry as a whole.
“If you get so efficient, that you get such a cheap price, that you drive everybody out of business, what’s gained there?”
Zufall says milk prices barely meet most farm expenses now. Many farmers need government subsidies just to meet the costs of production: to grow and buy food, for hormone injections, equipment and large scale facilities.
“It’s not sustainable. They can’t do it without help,” he says.
Zufall keeps costs low. The green rolling hills dotted with munching cows look a lot like the picture on a Horizon Organic milk container, which is where he sells his milk.
Bob Zufall explains his farming style
“Once I’m done milking in the morning, for seven months out of the year, I put these cows outside, and I don’t see them until the evening milking. I don’t have to feed them, I don’t have to clean up after them. My workload is lower, and of course my expenses. That’s why I think I’m probably as sustainable as anybody.”
Zufall doesn’t have any expenses for feed; hay doesn’t cost him anything.
His family doesn’t produce as much milk as a farm like the Stauffer’s, but his organic, grass-fed milk sells for more money – nearly a dollar more per gallon.
“I try, but I’m not out there to be number one, or to be the one with the most production. I want to be the one who at the end of the day is still here.”
And that’s a big part of what makes Bob Zufall’s farm sustainable, by his definition.
The need to feed the world
But Sandy Stauffer says small farms can't produce enough food. He says the world needs the efficiency of high tech farms like his.
Stauffer tells me the population is growing, and farms need to produce as much as possible.
“So, instead of you being a reporter, you would probably have to be out doing chickens or milking cows. It would take that many more people to produce the amount of food that’s needed for our population. That’s why farms have gotten large. That’s why all of agriculture has gotten larger.”
And that gets back to what Bob Zufall sees as the overproduction of milk at large, efficient farms.
Zufall says many people would like to milk cows and raise chickens, “People want to do it. But they can’t do it because it’s so cheap. It has no value.”
Zufall says the price of milk is so low, it’s hard for many dairy farmers to make a living, “I keep hearing we need to feed the world. Make it worthwhile doing, and you’ll see more food out there than you ever wanted to see. Guaranteed.”
Both farmers are doing well economically, but they view what it takes to endure very differently.