Trucking milk from one farm to another is vital for the dairy business. But Vermont suffers from a shortage of drivers

By | February 4, 2021
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The milk truck looks like a big silver tube on wheels. And on an early winter’s day, one was put back up in the dirt driveway of Jervis’ farm in Ennosberg.

The truck driver is Ben Kane, who jumped up to Tala the farm dog to greet him. Ken was there to pick up a load of milk.

The first thing to do is enter the milk parlor to check the tank.

“Very beautiful today,” he said. “I’ll be here for a while.”

Ken got out to the back of his truck and opened the doors of the metal tube, also known as the trailer. He unwrapped a long blue hose, which passed through a circular hole in the wall of the milk parlour, and attached it to the milk tank. Then he started pumping milk into the trailer.

On this particular day, Kane said he would stop at 11 farms in total. Once the trailer was full, he would pass it on to another driver, who would take it to a processing plant in Agam, Mass.

Image of a man shown in white as he coils a blue hose in the back of a milk truck, its silver doors open.

Milk undertaker, Ben Keen, finishes pumping milk into his truck during a layover at Jervis Farm in Enosburg earlier this winter.

Ken says he expresses milk about six days a week. According to Gervais Farm owner Kati Lawyer-Hale, Kane’s role is very vital to the farm’s operations, as they milk about 1,000 cows per day.

“Agriculture is a business,” said Attorney Hill. “We make a product – a product with a very short life – we have to trust our drivers to be here. They come here twice a day to get our milk. So when the roads are freezing, it’s Christmas, they are here. They collect the milk, and we basically trust them for our livelihood.” “.

Ben Keane is among the 4,000 or so heavy truck drivers in Vermont. The state does not keep data on how many drivers specifically pull milk, but According to the Vermont Department of LaborNot only will the industry lose about 60 jobs between 2018 and 2028, but more than 400 jobs will also open each year.

In other words, there will be fewer jobs overall, and more employee turnover.

Image showing the lower part of the cow's legs with milk coming from the cow's udder into transparent tubes.

Once the cows are milked at Gervais Farm in Enosburgh, the milk is kept in a tank, where it is then picked up by the milk conveyor to go to the processing plant.

Challenges with transportation — and the lack of nearby processing plants — were the main reasons behind Danone North America’s decision, Horizon Organic’s parent company, to pull out of the Northeast.

The move left nearly 90 farmers in the area without a home for their milk. This month, Organic Valley said Offer a Letter of Intent to several of them.

Dairy industry workers say the pandemic has exacerbated transportation problems, but not having enough milk carts is a long-standing problem.

Barney McConnell is the Director of Transportation for Dairy Farmers of America, a dairy cooperative that coordinates the transportation of milk for nearly 300 farmers in Vermont. He says DFA’s Vermont trucking company, Northeast Logistics, has about 80 trucks in its fleet, and he can easily hire eight or 10 more drivers.

“It’s not just about the dairy industry, but here we are trying to compete with the non-dairy industries for these drivers,” McConnell said.

Online job listings display averages for DFA jobs around 67,000 dollars a year. Walmart pays About $84,000.

More VPR: Survey shows Vermonters willing to pay more for dairy, but getting this money to farmers is complicated

McConnell says while the DFA does what it can to attract more people — including offering good benefits, emphasizing work-life balance, and partnering with driving schools to attract more people — there are only so many dairy cooperatives, which are made up of members from Farmers, estimated to.

“You know, the bonuses and the high wages for logging in, it’s just — I think we all understand that all of that money comes from our members, you know, you can only go to the well so many times,” he said.

Portrait of a white man standing in front of a chestnut truck.

Mike Weld owns Vaillancourt Transport in Enosburg Falls, a company that has subcontracted dairy cooperatives to transport milk. Since the pandemic, Weld says he has been working about seven days a week due to a labor shortage.

Along Route 105 just north of St. Albans, milk trucks ply the road every day. If you sit and watch for 10 minutes, you will likely see four or five trucks passing by. It’s the way Mike Wilde was going when he called me – and assured me it was hands-free.

“Well, I’m back,” said he, “I just left the factory – I’m going back to the yard.”

Weld owns Vaillancourt Transport and is based in Enosburg Falls. The company was subcontracted by dairy cooperative Agrimark as well as DFA to transport milk in Vermont. Currently, Wilde tells me he has at least two vacancies.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “since I started COVID, I’ve been out about seven days a week.” “I do a lot of my backup work behind the wheel.”

Picture of a red truck with the Vaillancourt Transport logo.

Mike Weld, owner of Vaillancourt Transport, says he can currently hold two positions.

Wilde said he was making calls from a truck cab — not his office — for several reasons.

Reason one: Weld says there are a lot of regulations for drivers. Young drivers need experience before insurance covers them. Older drivers need to Staying healthy enough to meet federal standards.

Reason two: Weld believes that unemployment benefits prevent people from applying for jobs. Economists Divided over whether this is true at the national level — but Weld says he’s heard at least one local example.

Reason three: According to Weld, the lifestyle required to transport milk in particular—seven days a week, weekends and holidays—is not appealing to the newest generation of prospective truck drivers.

“It’s an industry, I almost grew up in,” Weld said. “Like previous farmers, that knows what it’s like to work seven days a week and don’t think about anything, and you do it, you know?”

Photo of dairy cows inside a blue barn with a black dog outside the barn.

State and federal officials are working to increase milk processing capacity in the Northeast, which dairy cooperatives say could help with the milk transportation problem.

Solutions to transportation problems in the dairy industry are difficult to come up with, in part because they are systemic in nature. Much of Vermont’s milk needs to cross state lines to be processed. Even for milk processed in-country, drivers can sit in the driveway waiting due to the lack of labor in the factory.

In the short term, dairy cooperatives are trying to meet transportation demand more efficiently: modernizing equipment, sharing milk truck loads, and making work schedules more predictable.

In the longer term, they are part of working groups with state and federal officials to increase processing capacity in the Northeast. For example, the USDA recently awarded the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center Additional $20 million to assist in those efforts.

Shawna Nelson of Organic Valley, who oversees the transportation of milk for the dairy cooperative, says it’s about ensuring that the infrastructure is in place to support the dairy industry in general — including transportation and processing.

“To get the infrastructure from a processing standpoint, so that we can have local options to get our local Vermont milk delivered,” she said.

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