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Dairy farming in Rhode Island

October 25, 2013

Jersey cows at Emma Farms in Exeter munch on some grass while waiting for milking time.

EXETER—At Emma Farms in Exeter, local dairy producers gather for a photo shoot to promote the newest cheese on the market, Butterkase, produced by the fresh raw milk of Rhode Island cows. The Rhody Fresh dairy product line is well-known throughout the state, but more and more people are beginning to understand the benefits, and challenges, which farmers take on to produce local milk and cheese.

James Hines, executive director of the Rhode Island Diary Farms Cooperative, the group which is responsible for overseeing the production of Rhody Fresh products, sees a hard working group of local dairy farmers who, without the help of Rhody Fresh, would be unable to keep up with the demands of a large scale, corporate dairy business in the U.S. which has taken Rhode Island’s previously 80 dairy farmsteads down to just a handful.

“Rhody Fresh bridges the product’s profit and loss,” said Hines. “We have to pay our bills, and if we can keep these farmers going and producing quality products, the better. The farmers work 365 days a year, harder than anyone else.”

One of the biggest challenges facing dairy farmers, such as Emma Farm’s Scooter and Cynthia LaPrise, is the significant regulation which the federal government places on production, an emphasis which Hines understands is necessary, but difficult for smaller businesses who cannot rely on large-scale profit.

“Dairy farming is the most heavily regulated [of farming in the state],” said Hines. “Every ounce of milk is tested and inspected, and every sample is tested for antibiotics, bacteria counts and pasteurization counts just to make sure the milk is good.”

“The State of Rhode Island program is inspected by the FDA, and if [a farmer] doesn’t score a high enough score, their milk can’t be sold,” he added. “After the first time, they get a chance to correct it, but more than two or three failed inspections are the death knell for any farmer.”

According to Hines, no farmer in Rhode Island has ever failed a federal or state inspection because the risk would be too great. Because dairy is their livelihood, said Hines, farmers are extremely diligent.

“Luckily, it doesn’t happen,” said Hines. “These guys, if they have any questions at all, they’ll test the milk themselves and will pull the plug immediately if there is any problem.”

The federal government also sets the price for dairy products throughout the country, which Hines states is often below the costs incurred during production. Hines stated that in 2009, the average dairy farmer was losing $100 per cow, per month.

“It takes a long time to recoup,” he said.

That is where Rhody Fresh comes in, supporting small-scale dairy farmers and promoting their products so more and more consumers purchase their fresh, local product.

“[Rhody Fresh] is better than any product around that you can get,” said Hines. “For the U.S.D.A, a small farm is 500 cows, but we have micro-farms with less than 100 cows. They are traditional family farms, and we try to give them an additional return.”

The newest cheese, Butterkase, is a perfect example of how quality crafted cheeses can come from just down the street and not distant farms on the West Coast or in Europe.

“We introduced it because it is a new cheese for this area, and versatile to the Rhode Island market,” said Steve Volpe of Rhody Fresh. “It melts great for a fondue or something like that, or you can cut it up and munch on it. It is an all-purpose cheese that you can use for everything.”

Ultimately, Hines sees dairy farming as another important piece for local farmers to help support the local economy and educate consumers about the food they intake every day.

“We are a small state, so the more money we can keep internally, the better we will be,” said Hines. “When you buy Rhody Fresh, the money stays in state and helps improve our economy.”

“Every penny of our profit goes back to the farmers,” he added.

For more information on Rhody Fresh and where its products are sold, visit


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