Nearly 300 years of dairy farming comes to end in Durham, victim of falling prices

DURHAM — About 30 cows munched on hay recently at Brookfield Farm, more languid than usual with the high temperatures and muggy air outside, relishing the relative cool in the big barn.

A sense of loss hung in the air as heifers poked their heads out of corrals flanking a central open area, a day after Melissa Greenbacker-Dziurgot, her father Joe Greenbacker and other family members sold 200 heifers at auction. The barn was devoid of most of them: Holsteins and Jerseys, Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorns.

At its height, the 200-acre dairy farm at 160 Wallingford Road was home to 330 cows.

The day was one of reflection for the family, including Greenbacker-Dziurgot’s husband of three years, Matt Dziurgot, 31.

Up until a decade ago, the price of milk would fluctuate in a three-year cycle. But recently, the farm has been in the red.

“The outlook for the future isn’t good either. It’s one thing for it to pick up, but it has to stay there. That may be enough for farms in the other part of the country, which can up their production,” said Joe Greenbacker, 69.

The family partnership decided to stop milking cows and sell the farm, said Greenbacker-Dziurgot, 44. The federal government sets the price for drinking milk at $1.30 per gallon — not enough to pay for the farm’s labor, machinery and other upkeep.

Consumption of milk had gone down over years, but has recently leveled off, Joe Greenbacker said. More cheese and yogurt are being consumed these days — as is yogurt of all types.

But that’s still not anywhere near enough for them to make ends meet.

“I need rest. I don’t know what it’s like to have time off or vacation time. We’ll still have animals, but it’s not going to be 12-, 15-hour days. It might be an hour a day now,” Greenbacker-Dziurgot said, visibly weary.

Her father knew this time would come eventually.

“My body has been telling me every day for some time that I shouldn’t be doing this anymore,” he said, his body weathered from decades of labor.

His daughter acknowledges the same: Her feet, elbow and joints often ache.

At least for the short term, there’s a lot of work to do getting the farm cleaned up and presentable for possible sale.

As for Joe Greeenbacker, who runs the farm with his brother and sister, his only “vacation” has been when he’s traveled across the country for events held by the various farm organizations he belongs to. He still wakes before the crack of dawn like clockwork, ready to start the day’s chores.

“Here it is 2 a.m. and I’m up. You’re in a town where you don’t know anybody — there’s nothing to do. You’re waiting three or four hours until breakfast,” he said.

For years, Greenbacker-Dziurgot spent just about all her waking time with the herd — milking at 2 a.m., feeding and checking on the cows until about 8 a.m., then she would eat breakfast and nap until 10 a.m.

The family will keep the cows, a handful of which they own, until they made a decision about the path their future will take. Immediately following the auction, Greenbacker-Dziurgot got between eight and 10 job offers, she said.

She and her father share a stoicism common in farmers. Greenbacker-Dziurgot has drawn upon her faith to carry her through these tough times.

“There were a lot of tears — my cousin and I cried. All of these,” she said, gesturing to the large barn with less than a couple dozen heifers, “they’re all born and raised here. I’m the one who cares for them — with the help of family members — but they were my care, my responsibility from the day I was born. So even though they’re not mine in name, they’re all still mine,” she said.

At heart, Greenbacker-Dziurgot is an optimist.

“It was really sad to see them go through the ring, but, on the plus side, I saw some people that bought animals that were really excited. I know the people, and people were messaging me. ‘I bought one of your heifers, I’ll send you an update,’” she said.

They are keeping nine show calves, which are leased to the local 4-H club.

“We promised to show them for the year. We didn’t think it was right to deny them that,” Greenbacker-Dziurgot said.

Of course, her “baby,” Linguini, best known for being the face of her farm, that of Cabot Creamery, still “rules the roost.” The cow often visits rehab facilities and retirement homes, and schools for agriculture day. But she is getting up in years, Greenbacker-Dziurgot said.

“Linguini is so perfect for that. She’s calm, she doesn’t kick, she doesn’t move. The kids are all around her and she just stands there and they’re petting her. A lot of older people there grew up on a farm, or somebody they knew had a farm. Maybe bringing a cow would mean something to them — and it did,” she added.

Friday, Dziurgot was working a small tractor in the heat outside the barn. It took a year for the couple to realize their friends were setting them up.

“I had everything to learn and I was already well into my 20s, so I had quite the learning curve there,” he said about joining the family business.

“I don’t mind machinery and things. I can usually figure it out after a while, but there’s all sort of specialty skills that you don’t get until you get into this,” Dziurgot said, calling himself a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Like his father-in-law, it was always in the back of his mind that this could happen, “but I never thought it would be as abrupt and as soon into our marriage as it was,” he said.

“I seem to have this peace. I think it was all God,” Greenbacker-Dziurgot said.

“I had a peace and a strength that kind of surprised me. It was sad and heartbreaking, but, at the same time, we were able do what we needed to do to have successful sale,” she added.

“Most people live in a house and have an acre of land. I’m thinking: ‘It must be so boring, what do you do?’ I’m always doing stuff,” Greenbacker-Dziurgot said.

“You have to learn how to rest,” something she will be doing soon enough.