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The price of milk: Low for milk drinkers, but sinks family farms

With the price of milk low and feed and fuel costs spiraling, family dairy farms struggle to compete with large farms. In Vermont, the MacLaren family gives up dairy farming after three generations, joining the gradual national decline of small farms.

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A drop in the price of milk this spring and soaring feed and fuel costs forced the MacLarens to give up dairy farming after three generations. Here, Mike MacLaren, left, and his brother, Steve, watch an auction at their farm in Plainfield, Vt. on May 16, 2012.

Toby Talbot/AP

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The MacLaren brothers are third-generation dairy farmers, but they will likely be the last in their family.

After working all their lives on the hillside farm in Vermont that their grandfather bought in 1939, rising to milk cows at 3 a.m., even in blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, they decided to call it quits, auctioning off their roughly 200 cows and equipment ranging from stalls and hoof trimmers to tractors and steel pails.

The sale marked the end of the last dairy farm in Plainfield — a small town that once had several dozen — and the 14th dairy farm to go out of business in Vermont this year. A few small dairies have opened, but overall, the number of farms continues to drop in a state long known for its milk and cheese. Farmers say they can't make ends meet when milk prices are low and feed and fuel costs keep going up.

"The day of the small farms, I think, is gone," said Steve MacLaren, 54. "A lot of people are going to hold on as long as they can, but we decided not to. Why struggle on it any longer?"

Economic issues aside, the MacLarens are tired of being tied to the farm seven days a week. They plan to keep the land and grow feed — corn and grass for hay and silage — on more than 500 acres.

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