A sixth-generation dairy farmer reflects on the policies and practices that make caregiving and farming financially precarious.
By Abbie Corse
Commentary, FARMING, Food Policy, Regenerative Agriculture, Rural America
Posted on: October 30, 2019 | 6 Comments
On a clear September day, I drive the tractor up past the mulch field dotted with yellow goldenrod and poplar saplings, past the old grey fence. The leaves are just turning; their points yellowing, tie dyes of vermilion, chartreuse, and mustard. As long
as the hay baler doesn’t break again, today is the last day I will spend harvesting this year. We have just two-and-a-half months to harvest hay, in hopes of storing up enough forage to ensure that the grass-fed cows on our farm have enough to eat to produce
milk for the rest of the year.
I settle into the seat, absentmindedly polishing up the apple I meant to eat a few hours ago and am just now remembering. It tastes like the season that is rapidly descending. I feel like I can breathe again, the chaos of the morning fading into the background. The cows are in the field, and my boys are fed and on the bus.
Farmer Abbie Corse and her two sons. Photo by Amy Overstreet.I’m a sixth-generation farmer, on track to take over my family’s 150-year-old organic dairy farm in southern Vermont. My parents are still farming with me, and the majority of the management and labor still falls to them, despite the fact that they’re in their 60s. I log anywhere between 30 and 50 hours a week on the farm, and the rest of the time, I spend raising my five- and nine-year-old sons.
For my labor, I make $7,000 a year—a stinging reality that my career (and the continuation of my family’s legacy) is only possible because it’s subsidized by the small business my husband spends 60 to 75 hours a week running off the farm.
As a mother and a farmer, I am raising the next generation while producing food. Both, I would argue, are foundational and valuable contributions to society. And yet, these roles remain both invisible and seemingly undervalued in contemporary America. Based on my own experience, and that of others I know juggling both roles, there are few of us having an easy time paying our bills.
It’s not easy to find time to establish connections with other farming mothers; the long hours, geographical isolation, and the lack of rural broadband often keep us apart. But when we are together, I am inevitably struck by how our conversations revolve around the deficiency we share in our capacity to show up fully for any of our expectations. For most of us it feels like we are supposed to show up for the farm as though we don’t have kids and show up for our kids as though we don’t farm.
Although the number of female farmers has risen (with female producers representing as much as 36 percent of farmers), anecdotally there is no question that we are the ones balancing farm and family duties the most. A 2015 University of Vermont study found that 43.9 percent of women farmers are likely to report that childcare is an important factor in farm decisions, whereas only 23 percent of male farmers factor it into their decision making.
Simultaneously, at least one woman now works at more than half of America’s farms, as is demonstrated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census data. At the same time, giving birth has become increasingly difficult in many rural communities. Since 2010, 134 rural hospitals have closed their obstetric units and 18 have closed entirely.
We rely on the millions of parents and guardians to nurture a responsible, compassionate, hard-working next generation, and yet many caretakers are barely getting by. The median hourly wage for childcare workers in this country is $10.31, almost 40 percent below the median hourly wage of workers in other occupations.
With similarly little support, we expect our farmers to provide the nation with food and, increasingly, to steward our landscapes and protect us from climate change.
The reality of the dairy economy has seen the number of American dairy farms dropping by more than 93 percent since the 1970s. That trend is only going to continue, based on the policies, practices and, most recently, the galling public statements of the Trump administration.
“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” declared Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue at the World Dairy Expo recently. “It’s very difficult on an economy of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, or 60, or even 100 cows.”
In Vermont alone, a state that is more economically reliant on dairy as a commodity than any other, the number of dairies fell from 1,015 in 2010 to 681 in 2019. And yet, despite this massive drop, milk production is steady as market forces drive dairy towards continued growth and corporate consolidation.
While organic dairy farmers are still able to eke out a price that covers the cost of production (just barely), the situation for conventional dairy farmers is far more grim. And despite the cost of production hovering around $25.63 per hundredweight of milk, the average price for conventional Vermont dairy farmers in 2018 was only $15.44 per hundredweight. In other words—most of us aren’t remotely breaking even.
As many of my neighbors and farmer colleagues have made the gut-wrenching decision to auction their herds or sell their farms, I’m acutely aware of our privilege. The mortgage on our 150-year-old farm has long been paid off, and the only debt we currently have is the note on our solar panels. And yet, the air of deepening recession still weighs heavily.
The scent of the tractor is heavenly—it collects the sunshine and hay chafe and tumbles it up into this smell that immediately evokes haylofts, laughter, family, and summer. This afternoon when I get to the bus stop and scoop my littlest up, he will inevitably say, “Mama, you smell like the hayfield.”
And I will know exactly what he means because I remember hugging my dad and thinking the same. I remember the delight of trekking around after him as he moved fences or shuffled cattle. It is only now that I am cognizant of the dual labor that both my parents took on. To entertain the curiosity of a young child without crushing it while carrying out the myriad farm chores is no small task.
For me, the result of this mother-farmer collision is massive guilt, anxiety, and panic and middle-of-the-night worries; a near-constant sense that if just one thing shifts, the entire house of cards—on the farm and at home—will flutter down. Despite my privilege and love for my work, I dwell in uncertainty. I keep thinking that it should be possible (in the wealthiest country in the world) to work hard, raise children, and make a living at the same time.
And while I have no hope that the current administration will engage in any policy that will make this life better, I do carry some hope for the Democratic candidates. I’ve actually heard the term “regenerative agriculture” come up several times from candidates speaking in the mainstream media.
For example, Pete Buttigieg recently said: “Rural Americans can be part of the solution instead of being told they’re part of the problem… With the right kind of soil management and other kinds of investments, rural America could be a huge part of how we get this done.”
And he’s right. A rural life isn’t for everyone, but we need a policy overhaul that could allow those of us who are committed to providing people with high-quality food and saving our environment at the same time have access to a life of dignity.
We need policies that honor the work that Black, brown, and Indigenous people have done for centuries to care for the land, and return land to their care. We need not only childcare subsidies, but safe, consistent places for our children to be. We need to abandon the ridiculous notion that it is only with massive factory farming that we will feed the world. And, most of all, we need to bring our farmers back into the conversation. The 50,000-foot view is beneficial, but if you are not the person on the ground, up every day at the crack of dawn, putting in the back-breaking work, you simply do not know what it is you’re asking of farmers.
On another fall day, I look up from my work in the farmhouse and glimpse my father’s floppy hat bouncing along the ridgeline. My 9-year-old, Eli, is bounding ahead of him, and my mom follows with Niko, my 5-year-old, whose still-tiny hand is tucked in her own. To the west, the mountains stand in stark contrast to the cerulean sky. I’m sitting in the room where my grandfather snuck maple candy to me while I sat on his lap grinding beef for the winter. It is now the room where my parents will grow old. This place has seen many iterations of family and farm. It is my sincere and desperate hope that it will survive to see many generations more.
Photos by Amy Overstreet.