After months of financial struggle, Charlotte farmer Clark Hinsdale III has ended his dairy operation, auctioning off his animals and equipment, and is now considering whether a new agricultural venture might take hold on the 600 acres he still owns along Route 7.
The auction came last week with 236 animals sold along with an array of farm equipment, vehicles, feed and the farm’s modern robotic milking system.
“I spent the better part of a year trying to find a buyer for Nordic while it was a turnkey operation,” Hinsdale, a lifelong dairy farmer, told Vermont Public Radio Wednesday morning. “A 50-cow farm, 100-cow farm, and a 250-cow farm are no longer economically viable in the state of Vermont nor will they ever be.”
Wright’s Auction Service of Newport ran the auction. Nordic Farms’ financial troubles took a serious turn late last summer when its operator, Michael LaClair, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. LaClair owned the cattle and machinery but not the farm property. At the time of his filing, he listed $2.1 million in debts and assets just below $1 million, according to court records. Hinsdale was a creditor and ended up as the sole owner as the bankruptcy played out.
The shuttering of the Charlotte dairy operation is part of the larger trend right now as Vermont’s dairy industry shrinks. Farmers are under increasing financial strain as milk prices remain low, putting a crunch on cash flow that many cannot weather.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets reports that in just one year, Vermont has lost nearly 8 percent of its working dairy farms. On March 1, 2017, Vermont had 813 dairy farms. That figure dropped to 762 by Jan. 1; by March 1 it was 750, agency spokesman Scott Waterman said. The year’s decline is 7.7 percent.
“The numbers are staggering, the loss of farms right now – people can’t survive,” said Cambridge vegetable farmer Joseph Tisbert, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau’s Board of Trustees. “The lows are longer and the highs are shorter.”
Vermont farmers are awaiting new measures from the federal government expected later this spring. In the meantime, Tisbert said consumers could play a role. “If everybody in Vermont just drank one more glass of milk a day, it would help the marketplace,” he said.
As for Hinsdale, his farm’s future may lie in producing a new beverage. “One of the rapidly growing industries in Vermont is the craft beer industry,” he told VPR. “So let them drink beer. I think there’s a strong possibility that this farm will become part of the growth of Vermont-sourced products to make other beverages.”