Small Herds, Big Ideas

The family-run dairy farm isn’t obsolete yet. In an era of corporate consolidation, a dozen Vermonters are hanging tough.

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Steve Judge is leaning precariously over the edge of the hayloft of his leased barn in Shoreham, Vermont, catching bales of hay as they crest a rusted conveyor belt. In his gimme cap, sweat-soaked T-shirt, and crusty jeans, he hardly looks like a subversive — but in a way he is. With a handful of other dairy farmers along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, Judge has launched a dairy cooperative aimed not just at bringing their product to market, but at preserving community too.

Vermont Milk Producers sells milk. Nothing special there. But in an era marked by massive consolidation in the dairy industry, what is unusual is that the company belongs to the people who milk the cows — 12 families who live and work in this narrow alluvial valley. Their farms are militantly small, averaging about 80 milking cows apiece in an industry where everyone else seems either to be getting big or getting out.

“The Vermont Department of Agriculture thinks that thousand-cow dairies are great because they are the only way the dairy industry in this state can compete nationally,” says Ellen Taggart, executive director of Rural Vermont, a family-farm advocacy group. “In the past five years alone,” she says, “43 percent of the farms with 50 cows or less have gone out of business in Vermont, while the number of farms with 200 cows or more has increased by 40 percent. Steve’s company builds community because it relies on local farms and is responsible to them. They’re saying, ‘We need to care about our farmers, our community, our land, our animals.'”

What she’s talking about, really, is economies of scale. Big farms are good for lowering costs — but they also end up changing the landscape. Small farms disappear, and with them the local grain store and the John Deere dealer and some of the businesses on Main Street. Big farms can buy in big quantities from big companies that have big, long-haul trucks. Big farms can bring in seasonal workers; they can keep wages low.

“Imagine what it would be like if one of those thousand-cow farms were broken up and spread out in different communities, rather than being concentrated in one place,” Taggart says. “Socially, it’s a different thing. Economically, it’s a different thing. And environmentally, concentration is a nightmare.”

By contrast, Vermont Milk Producers is a dream. A dream — yes — because, with only 12 families participating, it’s ephemeral. But a dream, too, because of its aspirations. The members of Vermont Milk Producers are committed to what they call “sustainable farming” — farming that is meant to be good for the land, for farmworkers, for the local economy, and for the cows. They’ve drawn up a long list of rules and regulations, which they impose upon themselves. “It is forbidden to sacrifice the comfort and health of the cows in order to increase milk production or reduce production costs,” one of them reads. In other words, no bovine growth hormone or skimping on feed. Others have to do with energy consumption, recycling, and rotating crops to preserve biodiversity.

But let’s not get too touchy-feely here: Judge and his farmers are also saying, “We need to care about making a living.” Because they produce what they call “high-quality” milk — milk that costs more to produce and has more flavor (the way vine-grown tomatoes have more flavor than artificially ripened ones) — consumers pay 25 percent more per half-gallon than they do for the cheapest brands. That money goes directly to the farmers, because they — and not some distant corporation — own the company. They don’t make more of a profit than other farmers, but this premium allows them to engage in the kind of farming they believe in. Vermont Milk Producers nows sells 15,000 to 20,000 half-gallons a week throughout New England and eastern New York.

“This is not a hobby farm,” says Glenn Symon, a founding member of the company. “It has to work financially, or we won’t be able to do it. Anyone involved in Vermont Milk Producers can’t afford to look at it except from a business perspective.”

It is milking time on the Symon farm, Peaceable Hill, when I visit, and Glenn is stroking a cow named Hillary, born on Inauguration Day, who is coming into heat. His wife Judy is busy nursing Wheat and Rice, month-old Jersey twins, who suck enthusiastically from oversize bottles as she coos endearments.

Theirs is a showcase barn, clean and open and airy with skylights. The cows live in groups, clustered by age, and are able to walk around at will. “These cows can go to the bedding area when they want, eat when they want, water when they want, and socialize when they want,” Glenn says, explaining his free-stall system. “Socialization is really important. Cows are a herd animal. Being able to socialize makes for a more content animal.”

Content animals? Socialization? By now you’re probably assuming that Glenn and Judy run an organic farm, and that Vermont Milk Producers conforms to organic standards. They don’t; it doesn’t. “We share many of the goals of the organic community, but think organic standards sometimes compromise the health of the cows and the quality of the milk,” Steve Judge explains. “They’re asking farmers not to use techniques that they use on themselves. When their kids get sick, for instance, and it’s necessary to do so, they give them antibiotics. But they can’t do that for the cows. The organic standards won’t allow it. As a result, you can get farmers milking sick cows.”

If you are like most consumers, you probably don’t think too much about the milk you drink. You go to the supermarket, you check the prices, you buy whatever is cheapest. You don’t think about where the milk came from, or about how it tastes. Chances are that it came from nowhere and everywhere, and was trucked to a processing plant owned by one of several large corporations, such as Suiza, Dean Foods, or Dairy Farmers of America. In the past few years, one or another of these has bought up many of the country’s smaller dairies. (It’s been estimated that Suiza alone controls about 70 percent of the fluid milk market in New England.) The megadairies suck up the small dairy farms one by one, and even if they don’t buy them outright, they buy their milk and haul it away because, as the market consolidates, a small farmer has less and less opportunity to bring her milk to market. Shelf space in supermarkets costs lots of money; big corporations have it, independent dairy farmers don’t.

Still, people like to imagine that there is a farmer at the other end of their 2% — a guy sitting on a milking stool, his wife nursing the calves, their kids getting ready for the state fair. That image sells. Which is why half-gallons of Organic Cow of Vermont brand milk, for instance, boast about the company’s origins as a small, local Vermont operation, and why the cartons sport a Vermont address. But the address is for a sham farm — phones, desks, no cows. In April, Organic Cow was bought out by Horizon, a 5,550-cow dairy operation based in Colorado that muscled its way into the eastern market, buying up supermarket shelf space and forcing smaller dairies out. Or consider Cabot Creamery, whose blocks of cheese declare that the company has been “dairy farmer owned since 1919.” In fact, it is a $150-million-a-year subsidiary of Agri-Mark — which is itself one of the top-grossing privately held businesses in New England, with more than 1,500 farmer-members and annual sales of nearly $500 million.

The house where Steve Judge lives with his wife, Wendy, and their two daughters is about a mile and a half from the barn he leases. It’s a white farmhouse surrounded by pastures and hay fields. Beyond it are the mountains — the Greens to the east, the Adirondacks to the north and west. There aren’t a lot of other houses around.

This, of course, is not the sort of place where most of us live. We live in suburbs, we live in cities, and we romanticize rural life by ascribing to it values we feel are absent in our own lives. So community, which used to be a fact (read de Tocque-ville), is now a value. We all want it. But we have forgotten that it is not something you get, it is something you make, and you do not make it alone. Which is why scale matters. Which is why business and business practices matter. Which is why Steve Judge and Glenn Symon and their 10 partners know that the most radical thing they can do, really, is turn a profit.

It is early evening. Steve has finished laying up the hay and has to hustle down the road to another neighbor’s farm to milk his cows. A few years ago, when finances were really bad, he and Wendy were forced to sell their farm and auction off most of their cows. Friends took in the rest. Now the Judges are getting back into farming. They’ve leased a barn, bought a used milking system, and have a plan for how they are going to meet the stringent Vermont Milk Producers standards. It will take a while, they know, and they’re proud of this. They used to milk as many as 90 cows. This time they’ll be milking about 25.

“When we were first getting started, we went to one of the bigger dairies to see if they would process our milk,” Steve says as he gets into his pickup truck to go down the road. “They said, ‘We spill more milk than you produce.'”

Steve Judge laughs. He’s the little guy. With any luck, he’ll stay that way.


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