Got milk? New England farmers feeling dairy decline

BOSTON — For generations, milk was a mainstay of the American diet. It was the beverage that could go with dinner or with a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

But in recent years, consumption has plummeted as shoppers are increasingly switching to other options like almond milk.

Since 2000, the amount of milk consumed by Americans has fallen by 26 percent.

The dairy industry took another hit at this year’s Academy Awards when Joaquin Phoenix used his acceptance speech for best actor to decry the treatment of cows.

Warren Shaw runs the Shaw Farm in Dracut, a farm has been in his family for more than 100 years.

Shaw says he’s felt the backlash against milk over the years.

“First it was fat and now it’s not fat anymore. Today it’s the fake products that are out there, calling themselves milk and occupying the same shelf as dairy,” said Shaw. “It makes it a struggle, it really does.”

The farm has diversified its products and still has two dozen employees, but the threat to the business keeps getting bigger.

Marisa Hastie, an exercise science and nutrition professor at Lasell University, said the consumption of plant-based milk has soared “upwards of 25 percent in the last four years.”

Hastie notes that the products may look alike but says they are very different. “When you’re making a choice of whether or not to include milk in a diet, milk and plant-based milks are two entirely different food groups."

Hastie understands why the non-dairy alternatives like almond milk have caught on, noting they are lower in calories than whole milk, provide an option for those who are lactose intolerant or have milk allergies, while they also appeal to the growing number of vegans.

But for people who want more protein and less processed foods, Hastie says they should probably be pouring a glass of milk, preferably low-fat.

“Most plant-based alternatives are fortified with several vitamins and minerals, and they're also laced with thickeners and emulsifiers, things to increase the palatability, sometimes also sugar to increase the sweetness or the taste of it,” added Hastie.

Shaw wants people to think of a New England tradition and what would happen if it goes away.

“It’s the fabric of a community,” said Shaw. “It’s the character in so many ways, so when you lose a dairy farm, you lose a piece of the soul of that community.”

Last month, a group of U.S. senators including three from New England, wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration. They’re asking the agency to issue a set of rules that would preclude plant-based products from using terms like milk, that have traditionally been associated with the dairy industry.

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