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Disappearing dairy

02/06/07 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) While the legislature debates how best to support Vermont's remaining dairy farms, commentator Ron Krupp observes that they're fast disappearing in one corner of the state.

(KRUPP) In the fall of 2006, Dean Hamilton of Whetstone Valley Farm in Brattleboro called it quits. On November 17th, the last of their one hundred and forty Holsteins were shipped out. After years of hard work and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, Dean Hamilton and his brothers, Jay and Tim, decided to shut down the dairy farm and sell the herd.

Hamilton's grandmother started the dairy operation in the 1940s. Dean Hamilton remembers riding his tricycle through the barns, and later driving the tractor across the fields and helping his father plant corn.

There are now only four dairy farms left in the Brattleboro area - another Hamilton family farm down the road on Route 9, owned by Dean's cousin Kevin, and three other farms in the Ames Hill Road area - the Robb Family Farm, the Petrie Farm, and Lilac Ridge owned by the Thurbers, who are in the process of going organic.

The Whetstone Valley Farm was one of the largest in Brattleboro, comparable in size to the Brattleboro Retreat Farm. Unfortunately, around the same time, the Retreat Farm also underwent a major change. Ten days after the Whetstone Valley Farm went down, Alan Smith, the manager of the Retreat Farm, saw his herd of two hundred and four Holsteins being driven up a ramp into five trucks headed for Pennsylvania to a two thousand three hundred cow farm. This was a momentous event. Selling off the cows at the Retreat not only brought an end to a one hundred and seventy year-old dairy operation; it also marked the loss of the last dairy farm in Brattleboro with more than one hundred cows.

The Windham Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the Retreat Farm and Grafton Village Cheese, announced plans over the summer to close the dairy farm because it was losing money. They decided to build a new cheese processing plant at the Retreat Farm to meet the growing demand for Grafton cheese. The large classic red barn would be converted into the cheese plant.

But the loss of the Retreat farm met with opposition from the Brattleboro community. One alternative proposal came from the newly formed Brattleboro Agricultural Committee. Their idea was to replace the large herd of Holsteins with a smaller herd of Jerseys, the type of cows that produce the same kind of milk used in Grafton Village cheese. The new nonprofit would be called Retreat Meadows Farm.

The Brattleboro Agricultural Committee is still negotiating with the Windham Foundation to see if there's a way to keep the dairy farm running. Up to now, the feasibility plan has not been acceptable to the foundation. So it doesn't look likely any Jersey cows will be munching on grass in the Retreat meadows this coming spring; but then again, it's not over till it's over.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.

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