Farmer seeks community help to feed his cows
SHELBURNE, Vt. (AP) — Bernie Guillemette sat waiting for me in his big Freightliner truck on a bitterly cold afternoon late in February. Guillemette Farm sits at the intersection of Vermont Route 116 and Pond Road, where for the past 71 years Guillemette and his father before him have run a dairy farm. Guillemette’s 38-year-old son, Kyle, is next in line to take over the operation.
Now, for the first time in seven decades, Guillemette is dealing with a feed crisis brought on by bad weather and relentlessly low milk prices. He knew last October he wouldn’t have enough feed to get through the winter. Guillemette used his meager savings to fill his feed bunkers through the end of the year, but by January he was growing desperate.
With his options dwindling, Guillemette and his daughter, Jessica, decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign to raise $30,000 to buy feed for his herd of about 300 cattle. Guillemette says he has been humbled by the response. To date, the campaign has raised $25,150. Thanks to the donations pouring in, on that cold February day, Guillemette was making his 12th trip of the month to a nearby farm to fill his truck with 12 tons of feed.
“Don’t mess up my truck!” Guillemette shouted as I creaked open the door to the Freightliner.
The joke was immediately apparent as I looked for an open space to put my foot down and climb into the cab filled with chains, tools and other flotsam of the farm life.
“It’s a farm truck,” Guillemette said, smiling, as we shook hands.
I slammed my door three times in a futile attempt to get it to latch, and we were off. Guillemette eased the clattering diesel engine into gear and slowly crept onto Pond Road, running through what seemed like a dozen shifts before we hit 20 mph.
We were on our way to the nearby Mack brothers’ farm on winding backroads.
“The individual at the other end is an old schoolmate of mine,” Guillemette said of David Mack, who would be filling his truck with corn and hay silage.
“One thing I want to make perfectly clear,” Guillemette continued, “people see we’re in need of feed, but these animals never missed a beat, they weren’t ever without feed. I may have missed a couple of lunches, but my animals never did.”
The Macks have gotten out of the milk business, according to Guillemette, and will be relying on their land and machines to provide feed to other farmers, as well as performing other custom work.
“This is their new milk check,” he said. “They need income of some kind. We have to remind people that when the milk check leaves, the bills don’t stop coming.”
Guillemette says he’s not tempted to follow in his neighbors’ footsteps and give up on milk, an option that has its own challenges, not the least of which is that his customers would be farmers like himself.
“You’re dealing with people who are financially strapped,” Guillemette said. “That’s what’s happening in our area.”
Although Guillemette has bought small amounts of feed off and on over the years, his farm has essentially been self-sufficient, raising hay and corn on owned and leased land.
“People that know the kind of acreage we cover probably can’t believe we don’t have enough feed,” Guillemette said. “Neither can I. We cover a massive amount of acreage, four or five hundred acres easily of tillable land.”
But when it doesn’t rain, or it rains too much at the wrong time, it doesn’t matter how much land you have. Farmers have several cuts of their fields during the season. Guillemette’s first cut of hay in May was minimal. His second cut was a disaster, his fields dried up.
“Some of it wasn’t even worth cutting,” Guillemette said. “There was nothing there. Your lawn and the fields are identical. If the grass isn’t growing on your lawn and you’re in my area, the hay didn’t grow either. It’s that simple.”
There was still a third and possibly fourth cut to go, and it did start raining. The problem was it didn’t stop.
“Some of it was too wet to even go and get,” Guillemette said. “When Mother Nature was kind enough to drop water she didn’t know when to stop. We were battling in the corn fields in the mud.”
The decision whether or not to launch a GoFundMe was ultimately his, Guillemette said.
“I’ve never had to do this and I’ve never borrowed money to buy feed,” he said. “Even if milk prices were where they should be, it would still be difficult to purchase feed, this much of it.”
Guillemette swallowed his pride and gave his daughter the green light.
Staring out of the truck window at the snow-dusted, stubbled fields stretching away from the road, Guillemette said he was humbled and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
He said it was easier to talk about the whole thing now that a couple of weeks had gone by, and he no longer would “end up picking myself up with a sponge.”
“There’s a part of me that feels like I’m holding a cardboard in front of myself on a street corner, but the difference here is I’m not homeless and I’m not jobless,” Guillemette said. “I love my home and I love my job, the job that got me into this predicament.”
Guillemette, 63, has the ruddy complexion of a life spent outdoors. Dressed in layers of work clothes, he sports a floppy knit hat and a rakish goatee that makes him look like he could be plying the Great Lakes as a French-Canadian voyageur as easily as farming in Vermont.
Guillemette talks in a booming voice over the growl of the Freightliner’s engine. His rambling narrative covers subjects ranging from the bright red Farmall A tractor he fell in love with when he was 11 years old, to working in a business in which the producers — dairy farmers — have no control over their own market.
“We haven’t figured out what we’re going to do with today’s milk and we already got tomorrow’s milk coming,” Guillemette shouts. “We’re kind of over a barrel.”
To illustrate his point, he tells me that he was paid about $17 per hundredweight of liquid milk (8.6 gallons) in January.
Guillemette asks me to guess how much he was being paid per hundredweight of milk back in 1984, three years after he took over the farm from his father.
I guess $12.
“Twelve dollars would sound reasonable based on inflation,” Guillemette says. “I was getting $17 per hundredweight. Am I the only one that sees a problem with the color of this picture?”
Bear in mind that it costs Guillemette about $18.50 to produce a hundredweight of milk. It cost less in 1984 because his overhead was lower. Guillemette says if there was a way to back up the cost of labor, fuel and taxes to what they were 35 years ago, he would be in “great shape.”
“I tell people I don’t ever remember being rich, but I do remember at that time I was buying some new equipment,” Guillemette said. “I was writing checks out for this equipment. I wasn’t borrowing money.”
In 1988, he said, he bought a new feed cart for $2,800. In 1989, he bought a round baler for $9,000. The next year, he bought a new disk mower for $9,600.
“I have not been able to do that since,” Guillemette said
In 2018, Vermont had 71 fewer dairy farms than in 2017, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot until you word it a little differently,” Guillemette said. “That’s more than one per week. That sounds huge.”
The Agency of Agriculture also reports that in the first quarter of 2019, Vermont dropped under 700 working dairy farms for the first time, with just 697 farms remaining. That compares to more than 1,000 farms in 2010.
Downshifting the big Freightliner, Guillemette eases back into his farmyard on Pond Road, just off Vermont Route 116. He points to the empty feed bunkers about 50 yards in front of us, That’s where he’ll be dumping today’s load of feed, ready for his cattle’s next meal.
“If someone wants to know what an empty bunker looks like, that’s how this all started,” Guillemette says. “If that bunker was 10 feet high and heaping over, things still aren’t right. We wouldn’t be doing this GoFundMe, but it’s still not right.”
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com