Do you know where your milk comes from?

A rising demand for locally produced food could have beneficial consequences for dairy farming, one of the most land-intensive — and therefore most vulnerable — forms of agriculture in Western North Carolina.

With that in mind, the Buncombe County office of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension has put together a survey to gauge consumers’ interest in local milk. Completing it takes only a few minutes — much less time than those online I.Q. tests require — and could have real-time value to farmers and agronomists struggling to preserve a local industry.

“Dairy in the region is disappearing fast,” says Kate Slattery, farm-outreach specialist with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “It’s difficult because it requires a lot of land and there’s intense real-estate pressure. So both here and in Henderson County, the numbers have really been falling off.”

A 2007 study by the Asheville-based nonprofit found that there were 68 dairies in a 23-county swath of WNC, with 10 of those in Buncombe County. But rapid development and rising land values, coupled with high production costs and relatively flat milk prices, have made dairying’s prospects increasingly dim.

New marketing arrangements, “local” labeling and organic-farming practices are just a few of the options dairy farmers are investigating, both here and nationally, in order to stay in business. Still, the need to find solutions is urgent, Slattery says.

“Dairy farming is very infrastructure-intensive,” she says. “And once that infrastructure is gone, it’s extremely hard to build it back up.”

Click here for the Demand for Locally Produced Milk Survey.

— Kent Priestley, contributing editor

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