VERGENNES — Nobody likes to think about the worst-case scenario, but at a forum at the Vergennes American Legion last week Julie Smith urged the 10 or so farmers in attendance to do just that.
Smith, a dairy specialist at the University of Vermont Extension, is partway through a three-year USDA-funded project aiming to educate and combat potential hazards to Vermont’s food production systems, specifically dairy.
Tim Bouton, emergency response planner for the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, added that people in the broader community off the farm also need to take responsibility for protecting the food supply. He said even consumers can contribute to agricultural biosecurity by buying and selling food and agricultural products locally, and by educating themselves about food safety.
Nevertheless, all agreed that farmers are the front line of food safety.
“It’s our responsibility to protect our businesses,” Bouton said. “If we want control over our own property and animals, we should practice biosecurity every day, everywhere. And we need to be willing to pay the cost.”
Smith said food supply hazards can range from a natural disaster to a fire in a barn, but her focus is specifically diseases like foot-and-mouth, which can spread quickly and have potentially devastating effects on herds and agriculture as a whole.
For context, Smith estimated that if the U.S. had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, the nationwide economic consequences could total losses of about $8 million per day, despite the fact that foot-and-mouth disease poses no health threats to humans ingesting the meat or milk of infected animals.
As part of the project, Smith is working with four Addison County dairy farms and farmers — Mike Eastman in Addison, John Roberts of Butterwick Farm in Cornwall, Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge and Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport — to develop emergency response plans in case of an animal disease outbreak. Through public forums, she is encouraging others to create and share their own plans.
At the forum, Roberts shared the work he has done on the emergency response plan for his farm — some of the items being as simple as knowing where the keys to his milking parlor are or stocking caution tape to cordon off roads on the property.
The key, said Roberts, is limiting the number of people who arrive on the farm even before a sickness like foot and mouth disease has entered the state.
“With the mobility of people in this country, (disease) could easily jump a couple of states,” said Roberts.
Once a livestock disease is discovered in the country, Roberts said it’s key to take as many precautions as possible. Still, from grain delivery to milk pickup, Roberts said some people need access to his farm in order for the business to continue functioning.
“It’s virtually impossible to run a modern dairy without people coming onto your farm,” said Roberts.
And those people, who often visit a number of farms in quick succession, could become prime sources for disease transmission.
A COMMUNITY PROBLEM
A livestock disease outbreak wouldn’t just affect the farmers themselves — its effects would extend to agricultural communities like Addison County, and anything that relies on the agricultural economy.
Roberts pointed out that even if Vermont dairies were untouched by a disease like foot and mouth, the country would likely see a widespread decline in dairy exports.
“We saw exports drop off in 2009, and look what happened to milk prices,” said Roberts.
And in the case of a widespread animal disease outbreak, Dr. Steve Van Wie, a biosecurity consultant working with the project, said farmers simply can’t act alone. Van Wie spoke of his time in England during the widespread foot and mouth disease outbreaks of 2001.
“At some point in time, (the farmer’s) ability is going to run out,” he said.
That’s where local, state and federal governments are tasked with stepping in to protect the farmer and agricultural products. But, he said, those powers generally mobilize — and slowly — only if there is a disaster happening, not if there’s the potential for a livestock disaster.
“In my view, saying to people who don’t live down on the farm, ‘we want to protect our cows before it gets here’ is a fuzzy, abstract concept,” said Van Wie. “It’s a hard sell.”
The solution, said Van Wie, is to ensure that the governments — in Vermont, specifically town governments — have an agricultural disaster plan.
That way, said Van Wie, when “oddball requests” come up from farmers — closing a road to leaf-peeper traffic, using town equipment to hot-wash trucks coming onto the farm, or establishing a safe, central location where feed can be delivered — the town will know what to do.
Emergency response planner Bouton agreed with Van Wie. He cited an example near to everyone’s minds — Tropical Storm Irene.
“Response is not the answer,” said Bouton. “We cannot respond. We have to prevent this emergency.”
That goes for both local governments and for farmers, he said. Preparing for the worst is the best way to be ready when something happens.
“If you are a farmer, you need to think about this now,” said Bouton.
And Bouton said local officials also need to be aware of their role in the case of an agricultural disaster. While police, emergency medical services, fire, and the local health officer all have roles in responding to human and infrastructure emergencies, the selectboard assumes control over all other town issues not within the state’s jurisdiction.
If the state declares an emergency in a given region, the local government cedes control to the state, which can then use town and state resources to respond. Similarly, if the federal government declares an emergency, the state and town governments cede control. With each step up, response times become longer and longer.
Looking ahead, Bouton suggested that, for maximum security, Vermont could implement a policy requiring animals to spend two weeks in quarantine before entering the state.
“It’s going to cost us dearly, but it will be protecting a multi-billion dollar industry,” he said.
Following Bouton’s talk, the emergency responders, farmers and project participants in attendance broke into groups and discussed implementation of emergency plans — from town-wide education and drills to state-wide discussions of how resources could be mobilized in a disaster.
But the overall message was clear: farmers and local communities need to be prepared for an agricultural emergency.
“Having a plan and having a kit are things that we should be doing now,” said Roberts during his talk. “Hopefully we’ll never have to use it.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.