MONTPELIER — A recent flurry of enthusiasm for small, diversified farming operations in the state has left some farmers feeling left out in the cold.
That was the main message a group of Addison County farmers gave to legislators when they traveled to the Statehouse last Wednesday.
The thirty-some members of the agricultural community who traveled by bus to Montpelier were predominantly involved in production agriculture — that is, large-scale commodity production. Many represented the dairy industry, which, according to the recently introduced Farm-to-Plate plan, accounted in 2007 for 73 percent of the total market value of Vermont farm products, or nearly $494 million.
But the economic clout that the dairy industry has in the state does not necessarily mean voices in that industry are being heard, according to Bridport dairy farmer Marie Audet; though she said that is changing.
“Historically — up until four or five years ago — the dairy farmers listened to the legislators, rolled up their sleeves and followed,” said Audet.
In 2006, Jim Bushey of Bourdeau Brothersin Middlebury began organizing bus trips up to the state capitol because, he said, it often seems that the largest farms get hit with the hardest regulations, while their voices go unheard.
Bushey, along with a number of other Addison County businesses, offers services like nutrient management, custom seed mixing and animal feed programs that are geared toward large-scale agriculture. He said the largest farms are economic drivers, supporting not only themselves but the county infrastructure.
“I support (small farms), but not at the disadvantage of conventional agriculture,” he said “We’re making sure that the legislators don’t forget where the largest dollars in agriculture come from.”
In Montpelier, the group met with Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, and Reps. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, and Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, among other lawmakers at a reception.
But first they met with the chairs of the Agriculture Committee in each chamber — Sen. Sara Kittell, D-Franklin, and Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham. Gathered around a long conference table in the Statehouse cafeteria, the groups began a conversation about bills currently before lawmakers, and what attention will be paid this legislative session to issues that concern large-scale farming in the state.
Kittell began by assuring the gathered agriculturalists that although dairy pricing reform is primarily a federal issue, state agricultural committees were not ignoring it.
“We’re working with Secretary Ross to find any way we can get more attention in Washington for stabilizing milk prices,” she said.
Partridge said that one current focus is a bill that will pump money into jobs creation in the state. She explained that the agriculture committees are working to address agricultural jobs issues. Partridge, a sheep farmer herself, cited a push for animal slaughter training programs to address the shortage of slaughterhouses in the region. She also discussed the creation of a local foods coordinator at the Agency of Agriculture, which she said is staffed at 1983 levels.
Both lawmakers said they are very focused on the Farm-to-Plate plan and the legislative recommendations that will come out of it — including initiatives that will encourage Vermonters to purchase a higher percentage of their food from within the state.
But Bushey explained that many large-scale farmers in Addison County are struggling to see how Farm-to-Plate and the local consumption goals that the plan sets will apply to them.
“We’re exporting soybeans from the county, trucking them out by hundreds of tons,” he said.
And Vermont produces 299,418,605 gallons of milkeach year, according to Farm-to-Plate. If Vermonters purchased only milk from within the state, production would be about 20 times higher than in-state demand.
One farmer raised the point that a bill that passed the House on Wednesday, which would restrict the use of phosphorous-based pesticides on “non-agricultural” land, was OK’d by the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources but was not considered by the Agriculture Committee.
“It’s one word away from wildlife and natural resources dictating how we raise our crops,” he said, suggesting that the bill’s passage could lead to future restrictions on agriculture as well.
Though the issue was one of semantics, it raised the topic of restrictions on Vermont farmers, especially those farming in the Lake Champlain watershed.
Kittell acknowledged that farmers, especially those on large farms, are harder hit by environmental regulations than residential areas, which can also be significant sources of chemical pollution.
Tom Audet, an Orwell dairy farmer who was among the original members of the Lake Champlain Basin Committee, spoke up about regulations across the lake in New York.
“What is your partner doing on the other side of the lake?” he asked. “It seems like the burden always falls on the state of Vermont and on farmers.”
Kittell said that Deb Markowitz, new head of the Agency of Natural Resources, is working with New York officials to educate the public and get cooperation on that side of the lake. She said that the cleanup effort is one that will take a great deal of collaboration and sacrifices on all parts.
“But (farmers) have put a lot of work in,” she said.
“It’s taken decades to pollute the lake,” said Partridge. “It’s going to take decades, and everyone working together.”
Mark Mordasky, an Orwell soybean farmer, asked why he should stay in Vermont.
“I’m 27 and married with no children and no debt,” he said. “What’s keeping me in Addison County? The regulations coming down from the government are making my profit even slimmer. It’s looking more attractive elsewhere, so how much do you want someone like me to be around?”
Partridge said it’s not just the farmers feeling this pressure — the Legislature is struggling to set agricultural regulations that don’t overburden farmers but adhere to environmental standards.
“We need to work together,” she said. “You need to let us know.”
And a number of people addressed the ongoing debate surrounding genetically modified seeds — which, they explained, cuts down on the amount of pesticide that they must use after planting. Recent pushes toward organic agriculture, they said, have left conventional farmers worried that the technology they use is threatened.
Kittell weighed in with her thoughts.
“I know that tech is important to you,” she said. “I hope we’ll be able to come to a place where there’s a market for each of them.”
And Marie Audet, who sat on the Farm-to-Plate committee, voiced her belief that the legislation and ideas that come out of the Farm-to-Plate plan will ultimately be good for all agriculture in Vermont.
“I think what Farm-to-Plate has done for Vermont is to show everyone in Vermont how big dairy is, and how big a piece of the pie we have,” she said. “If we do nothing, if we let agriculture in Vermont run its course, we will not have it in a generation.
“We just have to keep bragging about what we’re doing on our farms,” she continued. “It’s all about education, about getting it out there.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]