As part of their senior seminar, a group of Middlebury College students took a close look at the Vermont dairy industry. They looked into the issue of farm viability and related their findings in a series of three podcast episodes called CowTalk.
Kristina Ohl and Jenevra Wetmore are both seniors at Middlebury and part of the team that worked on this project. They spoke to Vermont Edition in January about their experience making the podcast.
The class chose to look at a variety of topics related to dairy farming as the focus of the seminar, Ohl explains. Their group specifically looked at the viability of dairy farms, beginning each podcast installment by talking about how important farming is to the Vermont economy, but also questioning its future.
Through a partnership with the Agency of Agriculture, Wetmore connected with nine farmers, and interviewed them about their lives and what they see as farming's future.
The podcast goals
The choice to do a podcast that could be shared beyond just their classmates was due in part to the state of communication between those in the dairy industry and other parties.
"A lot of communication is being dropped – farmers communicate well with each other, but the public actually really doesn't have a very clear idea of what dairy farming entails at all," Wetmore says. "And certainly a lot of regulators, like the Agency of Agriculture, would like to hear more perspectives from farmers that they're missing out on. So I think our main goal was trying to at least help pick up some of those gaps and kind of make that connection between different parties."
Ohl adds: "What we went into the project hoping was that we identified one of the main ways we could help the industry was if we just had better communication between all parties."
When it came to a way to gather various perspectives to better inform all those involved, Ohl says, "We thought, 'What better way to do that than through a podcast?'"
What they learned
Wetmore, who has experience working on a dairy farm and also lives on a sheep farm, said there are some misconceptions regarding Vermont farmers.
"I think maybe there's a certain stereotype of a lack of awareness or a lack of knowledge," Wetmore says. "We associate nowadays farming with water quality issues, and I think that a lot of the people I talk to don't realize how aware farmers are of these issues – they know what's happening, they're really intelligent."
Ohl adds that working on this project dispelled a preconceived notion that farmers tended to work in isolation.
"Dairy farmers, along with also being very knowledgeable of what's going on, they're in communication with each other all the time about different solutions and different things they can do to improve," Ohl says.
The future of farms
A focus for the group was the plan of succession for farms – who would take over when the current farmer wanted to retire.
"In general, farmers do seem to want the farm to stay in the family, and to stay as a farm," Wetmore says. "But they also recognize that initially a lot of them didn’t go straight into farming – they left. They left and did something else, and then they came back and they settled into it and decided that was what they wanted to do. So it's certainly not a forced future for their children, you know? But it's scary then, because there's no guarantee that the farm's going to continue to be a farm."
Ohl also says that many of the farmers they talked to expressed a desire for their kids to pursue what they wanted.
"But they also emphasized how important it is to really start the conversation early, to make sure they're really talking about it – are you interested in coming back to the farm, how are we going to go through this, what's the process we want to take? Because it's not something you can do in a quick period of time," Ohl says.
Ohl says it was surprising to the group that nearly all the farmers they talked to had been developing a plan of succession. Both Ohl and Wetmore speculate, though, that if the farmers they contacted through the Agency of Agriculture had the availability to talk with them, that also might indicate something about the state of their farm.
"The people who responded I'm sure were the people who had the time and the resources ... We didn't talk to farmers who are really at the end of their rope, who are about to go out of business – because those aren't the ones that have the time to speak with other people," Wetmore says.
Diversifying from dairy
Another aspect explored in the podcast is diversification, and what farmers may look to do beyond just dairy. Diversification is something that Wetmore says is often mentioned as a way to address the challenges that come with farming.
"But when you actually start to think about what that looks like, it becomes really complicated, really quickly," Wetmore says. "Because now all of a sudden, you have to be an absolute expert in not only dairy farming, but in whatever field you take on. So you have to have a lot of skills, and a lot of expertise in multiple arenas."
In the group's conversations with farmers, Wetmore says there wasn't a consensus of opinion when it came to diversification.
Struggles and rewards
The podcast focused on challenges that come with farming, but also highlighted that there are also opportunities for success in the industry.
"I think it definitely depends on a lot of factors, and a lot of the farmers recognize that, yes, it's a difficult field, but if you learn how to play it – if you learn how to ride the roller coaster, you could say – then you can be successful," Ohl says. "And a lot of farmers we talked to had come up with some pretty interesting solutions to the challenges that they'd been struggling with."
Ohl cites a farmer who made an investment in robotic milking, for example, and another farm that sells their own milk.
"It seems like a really rewarding job, but it also seems like a challenging job – and one that you definitely need to have a lot of expertise in," Ohl says of dairy farming. "I was really impressed with the dairy farmers I talked to and I don't know if I could do the same thing they do. But I'm really glad that they do it."