Life on a small dairy farm was tough enough. And that was before the barn blew down.
Bad storms in January and February at first damaged and then collapsed most of Paul and Bonnie Bettencourt’s barn. The destruction left only the sturdier wooden section Paul built with his own hands.
None of the Bettencourts’ animals were hurt in the collapse. One of their horses left Bonnie black and blue when he slipped on ice, slammed his knee into hers and pushed her into a door.
The bruises have healed, but the Bettencourts’ family farm is still recovering. Number one on the list is replacing the barn. It needs to be up before the weather changes in October or November, Paul said.
At the urging of friends, the couple set up a fundraiser via GoFundMe. They need $82,000 for a new, tin barn. So far they’ve raised $15,516, mostly from fellow farmers who understand the slim margins and never-ending work their calling demands.
“We cannot afford to rebuild the barn on our own,” Bonnie wrote on their GoFundMe page. “We didn’t have insurance as no one will cover farms any more. We’ve had nothing but hardship and tragedy going on. We need help. Our cows will freeze this winter without proper shelter. Please help out this little farm if you can.”
Paul would like to be able to mill his own wood and build the barn himself, as he did with the section that’s still standing. His right knee won’t allow it. He can’t climb ladders and his limited mobility means he can’t get out of the way if there’s trouble.
“He’s bone on bone,” said Bonnie, noting that he’s aiming to get a knee replacement operation.
‘The farmers are hurting’
Bettencourt Farm dates to 1891 and is, by the Bettencourts’ account, the oldest dairy in Rehoboth that’s still operating. The town used to be home to 125 dairy farms. Now there are four, Paul said. They eke out a living selling raw milk, fresh eggs, beef and poultry.
Even by the standards of small farms, the Bettencourts’ operation is tiny. They sit on 80 acres of land, about 20 of it good for farming. To put that into perspective, Paul says a good farm is generally at least 200 to 300 acres.
Last year’s drought caused half the corn crop to fail. That put the Bettencourts under further pressure, since they rely on that corn to feed the cows. Now they must buy feed instead.
“What comes in from the milk goes back out in feed,” Bonnie said. “We do it because we love it, not because we make any money. We do not make any money.”
The Bettencourts had to get rid of 30 heifers because there was no room for them with the roof gone. It takes about an hour to milk their 30 remaining cows.
“The farmers are hurting, everybody is,” said Paul.
Years ago, Paul tried pipefitting. He says he’d have made a lot more money if he’d stayed in that line of work.
The Bettencourts are grudging members of Dairy Farmers of America, a farmer-owned co-op that holds great power in the nation’s milk market. In Bonnie’s telling, larger producers aren’t penalized if they flood the market with more milk than they’re supposed to, given quotas that are assigned each farm.
“The big guys can go way over and it drops our price,” Bonnie said. “It buries us.”
Leslie Blanchette, department chair for Animal Science at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, confirmed that small, local dairy farms face serious challenges.
“It’s getting more and more difficult for smaller dairy farms to be successful in southeastern Massachusetts due to development of farm land, volatile milk prices and larger corporations’ impact on the industry,” Blanchette said via email.
‘We’re gonna keep it a farm’
Times are tough at the Bettencourt place, but all around it you see testaments to second (and third) chances.
The Bettencourts rescued their two former racehorses, Poppaz and Desi, from a “kill pen” in New Jersey.
The Bettencourts’ own marriage is another example. The couple met on FarmersOnly.com, a dating site that brought them together after their former spouses both died.
The road ahead won’t be easy, but the Bettencourts are evolving a plan. A key element is re-starting cheese production. That effort is led by Emily Bettencourt, one of Paul’s eight children. The Bettencourts had a retail sales connection for their cheeses lined up before COVID hit. Paul said they haven’t heard any more from the buyer, so they assume he went under.
Emily plans to produce several types of gouda, including smoked and garlic varieties. She is also considering making Gruyère, “American Brick” and cheddar.
Sheep might be a part of Bettencourt Farm’s future. Paul says one thing is certain:
“We’re still going to milk cows,” said Paul. “We’re gonna keep it a farm. We don’t want to sell it.”
Want to help?
The Bettencourts are raising $82,000 for a new barn to protect their milk cows this winter. You can donate by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/ and searching for “Bettencourt cows.” Here’s a direct link.