Hard Work, Cows and Community: Why Young People in Bethel, Vermont are Choosing to Stay on Dairy Farms
The photographs that appear in this work have been contributed by anonymous participants and cannot be reused.
The number of dairy farms in Vermont has been declining for years due to a combination of factors including unstable milk prices, the rising cost of living, production pressure and increased opportunities for alternative ways of life. Yet despite these challenges, there are still members of the younger generation who are choosing to enter the dairy farming industry. This study investigates the factors that are keeping the younger generation on the farm, using the rural community of Bethel, Vermont as a case study. Following the national trend, Bethel has been losing its dairy farms yet it has also seen many of its young people choose to remain on the farm making it a prime location to investigate factors that are causing people to stay. To explore this phenomenon, I engaged 14 young dairy farmers and potential dairy farmers aged 18 to 30 in a series of interviews. Preliminary interviews were designed to gain a sense of lifestyle, rationale and future goals while a second round of interviews utilized participatory photography to give the farmers the opportunity to share their lived experiences in a way that words alone cannot convey. Using this in-depth interview method, I was able to investigate the motivations of young people to enter the field of dairy farming and found out that the primary reasons they are choosing to stay include the relationships they have with the cows and the farm owners, the work and the rewards of the work and the support of the community. I discovered that young farmers are gaining college educations and using these educations to increase their chances in the dairy industry. Furthermore, the factors they see as challenges in the industry are not the same as those identified in the literature; where the literature identifies primarily economic challenges, the farmers noted socially-based challenges as their largest concerns. Ultimately, I came to the conclusions that supporting the future of small farms in Vermont is vital and contingent on supporting youth engagement in the industry and that more qualitative research needs to be done to add to this understudied question of why young people are choosing to farm.