Connecticut Farmer Focused on Markets and Land
Robin Chesmer, a Connecticut dairyman, could be the poster child for farmer entrepreneurship and local market development. Fascinated by farming at an early age, he got his start through an array of projects, raising chickens, feeding out some calves to sell, taking on whatever opportunities he found.
Now, in addition to his 400 cows, he’s the operational manager for Farmer's Cow, a marketing effort by Chesmer and five dairying neighbors that is showcasing locally produced milk to state residents and winning customer support.
“If I had my choice, you’d see farmers able to perform independent of any program, but the world doesn’t work that way,” says Chesmer. “Our aim when we set up Farmer's Cow was that goal of financial independence. In Connecticut, we are on the doorstep of the biggest marketing opportunity in the world, but when we were faceless, we weren’t taking advantage of it. So we launched our own initiative.”
Chesmer’s initiative is an example of the kind of entrepreneurship the American Farmland Trust encourages and supports through the Growing Local program. Farmers Cow does supermarket tastings, internet promotion, and more to deliver locally produced milk to consumers. But Chesmer and his group face some daunting challenges.
“We rent ten different parcels of land and half of them are up for sale or they’ve got developers knocking on the door,” he explains. “Land prices are escalating out of sight, and dairy prices right now are so horrific that we’re not in a position to buy nearby land when it comes on the market.”
Participation in the current federal milk program (MILC) doesn’t help Chesmer that much when milk prices stay depressed. He notes that production caps limit his payments to about three months of the year – even a 200 cow dairy produces enough milk to hit the cap.
With his 17-year-old operation still carrying debt from start-up costs, Chesmer and others like him need farm programs to help survive sustained hard times.
“It’s hard enough to meet obligations, so we can’t even look at buying land – even land that we should be working aggressively to keep in farming,” he says. “I believe that a farm that isn’t investing in improvements won’t be around in the future. But the people who have invested are under really severe stress these days.”
Against that grim backdrop, Chesmer sees reasons for optimism—his son’s involvement in his dairy, what his cows are doing, and the positive consumer response to Farmers Cow.
“The common response we hear is ‘We’re willing to pay more to support local farms.’ I get e-mails from consumers all the time, and they do care about how we operate and what’s good for the land,” he says.
“I see the possibilities of what we do, and I think the future should be bright if we can solve these basic financial challenges.”
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