WESTERLY — Buttercup is sassing her elders again. The small Jersey calf, the only one of her breed among the 65 Holsteins at Ocean Breeze Farm, is butting heads with the adult milking cows on the other side of the fence. She may not know it, but Buttercup is not yet big enough to be integrated into the milking herd, and she’s better off where she is for now.
Ocean Breeze Farm, purchased by owner Frank Panciera’s father in 1938, is the last dairy farm in Westerly, and it might not exist as a working farm much longer. Panciera, who is 65, looks strong and fit despite his back and knee surgery last year, but he admits that after 50 years of farming, he’s starting to think about retiring. His 41-year-old daughter, Sylvia, has always run this farm with her father, but she doesn’t see herself doing it forever, either.
“Through high school, elementary school, I would skip school to go ride on the tractors and rake hay. Yeah, after 30-some years, you’re tired,” she said.
Sylvia’s daughter wants to become a certified nursing assistant, so this third generation may be the last to run the farm
“I guess, another year or so, I can retire and I can still make as much money as I want to make,” Frank Panciera said. “If somebody came along and wanted to buy the place, I’d probably sell it if I could get enough for it. The development rights have been sold, so you can’t put any houses here.”
Panciera owns 60 acres on Noyes Neck Road and another 60 acres on Dunn’s Corners Road.
He grows his own corn and hay, and was planning to bale a third hay cut that afternoon.
Armed with a wry sense of humor, he is a man of strong opinions, which he doesn’t hesitate to express. Asked where the bull is, he replies “in a tank in the barn.”
“Low fat, no fat, no taste,” he said of the milk in supermarkets today. “I like to drink it right out of the cow …. Everybody’s worried about getting so obese. They don’t do nothing.”
Panciera is also skeptical of the value of free-range eggs. “What the hell’s a free range egg?” he asked. “The chicken goes along and eats the corn out of the cow manure.”
Ocean Breeze Farm is a member of the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which also owns the Cabot Creamery Cooperative.
“We market their milk for them,” Agri-Mark spokesman Doug DiMento explains. “They’re members of the co-op, and they’re also owners of the co-op, so any profits we make at the end of the year, 100 percent of those profits go back to the farmers.”
Agri-Mark owns four milk processing plants and also markets and sells milk to companies like HP Hood LLC and Friendly’s Ice Cream LLC. About half the milk goes to Cabot, which turns it into cheese and butter.
Agri-Mark has 1,250 member farms throughout New England and New York State. Just nine of them are in Rhode Island. DiMento says the state is losing farms because it’s losing farmland.
“In the New England states, it’s been declining, simply because of the pressure on land values, pressure for development. If you’re in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, you can sell your farmland and it’ll be developed,” he says.
Several miles inland in Ashaway, Gary and Trina Marsh own and operate Elmrock Farm, named after the few endangered American elm trees that still grow there. Trina’s great grandfather started the 260-acre farm in 1889, and their son, Lucas, is now the herdsman, taking care of the cows’ nutritional and medical needs. Lucas’s son, who is only 10 but is already helping out, will be the sixth generation to work on this farm, and the family has no intention of selling it.
But as much as they love this way of life, the Marsh family can’t make a living farming. Gary, a machinist and woodworker, and Lucas, a cabinetmaker, have a woodworking business in Westerly. Trina has worked at a casino buffet in Connecticut for 12 years. All three go to their second jobs between the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. milkings.
“For the benefits,” Trina said of the casino job, which she jokingly compares to managing a dairy herd. “It’s not much different than here. The people are rowdier, and you can’t throw them a scoop of grain and tell them to shut up.”
The Marshes have 100 brown and white Ayrshires, and their herd is about to get a little larger.
“These are the ladies in waiting,” Gary Marsh said, walking over to an enclosure where several pregnant cows are standing. “When we see them begin to calve, we usher them into the calving pen. Unless there is an extreme problem, dairy cows calve pretty well by themselves. If the calf is in backwards, we turn it around.”
Elmrock Farm also has a living, breathing, 5-year-old bull.
“Artificial insemination costs money, but a bull doesn’t cost. When money is tight, Mr. Bull does all the work,” Marsh joked.
The bull, a massive, imposing animal, stands placidly in the main pen with the cows.
“Usually when they get to this age, they get very dangerous, but this one isn’t so we’ve kept him,” Marsh said.
The Marshes can control the way they manage their herd, but just about everything else about their business is out of their hands. The federal government sets milk prices, which can fluctuate wildly from one year to the next. Prices for feed and fuel and veterinary care keep rising, while the price farmers get for their milk usually remains low.
Elmrock, an Agri-Mark member, is also one of eight Rhode Island farms belonging to the newer Rhody Fresh cooperative. Formed in 2004, Rhody Fresh markets and promotes local milk, cheese and butter. The members, who meet once a month to go over the co-op’s books, keep the profits.
“It’s hard to farm in New England to begin with,” Marsh said. “The government sets the price of milk, you’ve got the big factory farms that are pushing milk everywhere. If we didn’t have Rhody Fresh, we’d be out of business.”
Another factor that contributes to keeping milk prices low is that there is too much of it. Enter China, which, Marsh said, is all too happy to buy up the surplus in the form of powdered milk.
“They’re leaving with powdered milk like crazy. Them buying it takes the excess milk that these big factory farms are pushing into the market. The government prices our milk by the Chicago stock exchange. It’s a commodity .… If there’s a flood of milk, the price drops,” he said. “When it shoots way down low, we lose a tremendous amount of money. It isn’t like you own a factory. I can’t lay these girls off. I lay them off and they go to ‘McDonald land,’ and I don’t have them when it goes back up.”
Rhody Fresh members get a slightly higher price for their milk, something co-op spokesman Robert Falcone says is not an issue for consumers who can afford to spend a little more to support local farms.
“Rhody Fresh costs a little more in the supermarket, because the co-op will keep the price at a certain level. There’s always somebody who’s going to price shop, and it’s hard to compete against that, but Rhode Islanders are known for supporting ‘farm to table.’ Some get it, some don’t,” he said.
Consumer preferences have also changed, he noted. “Our grandparents and parents drank milk because it was there. But now, you put it in your cereal, put it in your coffee, but it’s not like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ drinking a great big glass of milk when you come home from school,” Falcone said.
In recent years, the biggest seller in the dairy business has been Greek-style yogurt, but DiMento of Agri-Mark said that market is now becoming saturated. “The last couple of years, it’s been a great contributor to our bottom line. We expect the growth to be slowed somewhat, simply because so many people are getting into the yogurt market now,” he said.
Rhody Fresh is now promoting a German-style cheese, Butterkäse, made locally by Narragansett Creamery.
“The reason they picked that particular kind of cheese is you really can’t get it around here,” Falcone said. “It’s a unique kind of cheese, but the downside is we’ve got to educate the public as to what kind of cheese this is and get them to try it.”
As demanding as dairy farm life is, with seven-day weeks, 14-hour days, and no vacations, Panciera and the Marshes can’t see themselves doing anything else.
Even as Panciera contemplates selling his farm, he said he’s glad he earned his living as a farmer.
“Yeah, I guess so. Too late to do anything about it now,” he said, laughing. “I quit school when I was 16, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Sylvia said she has loved helping to run the farm, but once her father retires, she doesn’t intend to run it alone.
“The kids aren’t going to take over with me, so I’m not going to do it forever by myself,” she said.
The Marshes are determined not only to keep their farm, but expand it. “What we’re trying to do is transform this farm into something where multiple generations can work and pull some money out for a living,” Gary said.
In addition to expanding the milking barn, he would like to someday buy a robotic milker. “I went to a farm in Vermont that had them, and that totally sold me on the idea right there,” he says. “One robot will take care of 60 cows.”
Falcone said consumers have a big hand in determining the fate of Elmrock and other Rhode Island dairy farms.
“If you want to drive by and look at a pretty pasture, look at a farm and get pleasure out of that, there’s a reason that these farmers are dedicated and holding on. They’re working hard, and it’s not an easy life,” he said. “Support it by buying some of the product and you can keep it going.”