Trucking milk from farm to plant is vital to the dairy business. But Vermont is short on drivers
A milk truck looks like a big silver tube on wheels. And on an early winter day, one backed up into the dirt driveway of Gervais Farm in Enosburgh.
The truck’s driver was Ben Kane, who hopped out to be greeted by Tala the farm dog. Kane was there to pick up a load of milk.
The first thing he did was walk into the milk parlor to check the tank.
“Pretty full today,” he said. “I’ll be here for awhile.”
Kane walked out to the back of his truck and opened the doors of the metal tube, aka the trailer. He uncoiled a long blue hose, which he passed through a round hole in the milk parlor wall and hooked up to the milk tank. Then he started pumping the milk into the trailer.
On this particular day, Kane said he would stop by 11 farms total. Once the trailer was full, he’d pass it along to another driver, who’d take it down to a processing plant in Agawam, Mass.
Kane says he hauls milk about six days a week. And according to Gervais Farm co-owner Kati Lawyer-Hale, Kane’s role is absolutely vital to the farm’s operations, where they milk about 1,000 cows a day.
“Farming is a business,” Lawyer-Hale said. “We make a product — a product with a very, very short life — we have to trust our drivers to be here. They come here twice a day to pick up our milk. And so when it’s icy roads, it’s Christmas, they're here. They're picking up the milk, and we are trusting them with our livelihood, basically.”
Ben Kane is among the 4,000 or so heavy truck drivers in the state of Vermont. The state doesn’t keep data for how many of those drivers are specifically hauling milk, but according to Vermont’s Labor Department, not only will the industry lose about 60 jobs between 2018 and 2028, but more than 400 positions will also open up each year.
In other words, there will be fewer jobs overall, and a lot of turnover.
Challenges with transportation — and a lack of nearby processing plants — were the main reasons why Danone North America, parent company of Horizon Organic, decided to pull out of the Northeast.
The move left nearly 90 farmers in the region without a home for their milk. This month, Organic Valley said it has offered a "letter of intent" to many of them.
People in the dairy industry say the pandemic exacerbated transportation issues, but not having enough milk haulers is a longstanding problem.
Barney McConnell is the director of transportation for Dairy Farmers of America, a dairy cooperative that coordinates milk hauling for nearly 300 Vermont farmers. He says DFA’s Vermont trucking company, Northeast Logistics, has about 80 trucks in its fleet, and he could easily hire eight or 10 more drivers.
“It's not just the dairy industry, obviously, but here we are trying to compete with nondairy industries for these drivers,” McConnell said.
McConnell says while DFA does what it can to bring on more people — including offering good benefits, emphasizing work-life balance and partnering with driving schools to bring on more people — there’s only so much a dairy cooperative, which is made up of farmer members, can do.
“With, you know, high sign-on bonuses and wages, it's just — I think we all understand that all this money comes from our members, and you know, you can only go to the well so many times,” he said.
Along Route 105 just north of St. Albans, milk trucks barrel down the road every day. If you sit and watch for 10 minutes, you’ll likely see four or five trucks pass. It’s the route Mike Weld was driving when he gave me a call — which, he assured me, was hands-free.
“Well I’m headed back, I just left the plant — I’m heading back to the yard,” he said.
Weld owns Vaillancourt Transport, based in Enosburg Falls. The company is sub-contracted by Agrimark dairy cooperative as well as DFA to haul milk in Vermont. And at the moment, Weld told me he has at least a couple open positions.
“Oh I don’t know, ever since I think COVID start, I’ve been pretty much seven days a week, myself,” he said. “I do a lot of my spare work setting behind the wheel.”
Weld said he was making calls from the cab of a truck — and not his office — for several reasons.
Reason number one: Weld says there are too many regulations for drivers. Young drivers need to have experience before insurance will cover them. Older drivers need to stay healthy enough to meet federal standards.
Reason number two: Weld thinks unemployment benefits are keeping people from applying for jobs. Economists are split on whether that’s true nationally — but Weld says he’s heard at least one anecdotal instance locally.
Reason number three: According to Weld, the lifestyle that milk hauling in particular requires — the seven days a week, weekends and holidays part — is not attractive to the newest generation of would-be truck drivers.
“It’s an industry, you almost got to have been brought up into,” Weld said. “Like ex-farmers, that knows what it's like to work seven days a week and think nothing of it, and you just do it, you know?”
Solutions for dairy industry transportation problems are tough to come by, partly because they’re systemic in nature. A good portion of Vermont’s milk needs to go over state lines to be processed. And even for the milk processed in-state, drivers can end up sitting in the driveway, waiting, due to labor shortages at the plant.
In the short-term, dairy cooperatives are trying to meet hauling demand with more efficiency: updating equipment, sharing milk truck loads and making work schedules more predictable.
In the long-term, they’re part of working groups with state and federal officials to increase processing capacity in the Northeast. The USDA, for instance, recently granted the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center an extra $20 million to help with those efforts.
Organic Valley’s Shawna Nelson, who oversees milk hauling for that dairy cooperative, says it comes down to ensuring infrastructure exists to support the dairy industry overall — transportation and processing included.
“To have the infrastructure from a processing standpoint, so that we can have local options to deliver local Vermont milk,” she said.