A few miles from my home, a tough old white farmhouse and a weather-beaten barn sit hard against the foot of Vermont’s rugged Green Mountains. It is here that I find third-generation dairy farmer George Woodard, muck boots pulled high, working among the cows he milks. The Woodard family is part of a long line of farmers who have toiled here since the American Revolution, scratching a living from the stubborn, stony hillsides as they tend their herds. These dairy men and women have endured two centuries of Nor’easters, drought, sun, rain and wind to bring milk—the first food—to their neighbors.
Storms and disease have failed to vanquish the farmers, but a new predator is having more success. It costs conventional dairy farmers about $18 to produce 100 pounds of milk (“hundredweight,” in dairy parlance, equals about 12 gallons). When the price that farmers are paid by processors for their milk fell by half last year—from a high of nearly $22 per hundredweight in 2007 to $11 per hundredweight in 2009—many of America’s small dairy farms went into a financial freefall that continues today. The crisis became a tragedy in January, when Dean Pierson, a third-generation dairy farmer in upstate New York, shot all 51 of his cows before turning the gun on himself. He wrote in his suicide note that he was “overwhelmed.”
Around the country, there are similar stories: “We are hearing reports of farmer suicides from California to out East. It’s devastating,” says Wisconsin dairy farmer Joel Greeno, vice president of Family Farm Defenders, an advocacy group.