Farmers, community seek dairy solutions

MIDDLEBURY — The nearly 40 people gathered in Middlebury last Wednesday for a forum on local dairy agreed on many lingering issues holding back the industry, but solutions proved to be harder to come by.
“We hoped to talk about things we can do locally to help dairy farming be profitable and sustainable,” summed up Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC), at whose headquarters the forum was held. “We’re not going to solve the problems with the milk industry locally, but we can support our local dairy businesses, whether they’re conventional or organic.”
Those attending the meeting ran the gamut from dairy farmers and community members to politicians and government employees, and all were gathered to discuss the struggle dairy farmers in Addison County face.
In his introduction to the event — sponsored jointly by ACRPC, Addison County Economic Development Corp. and the Addison County Relocalization Network — Lougee said the purpose of the meeting was to build constructive community dialog around dairy farming.
The first two panelists to speak were dairy farmers. Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport and Cheryl DeVos of Kimball Brook Farm in North Ferrisburgh each spoke about the economic states of their dairy farms.
Audet outlined an essential problem faced by local dairy producers — farmers in Vermont are subject to national milk prices, which are consistently low.
“We’re operating at 1980 milk prices with 2010 expenses,” she said.
While the retail price of milk and the price that the processing companies get for their milk continues to rise, the price the producers receive for milk fluctuates radically.
“The producer takes all the volatility,” said Audet. “If the fuel price goes up, the trucker who carries the milk gets a fuel adjustment. Everybody above the farmer keeps their cut.”
Audet spoke of her farm’s attempts to increase efficiency and turn a profit. Blue Spruce milks more than 1,000 cows, and sells the milk to Cabot Creamery. In recent years, the farm has made headlines with its Cow Power program, which uses fermenting manure to generate methane gas that is used to generate enough electricity to power hundreds of homes. It also produces a dry, odorless byproduct that the farm uses for bedding in place of sawdust, thus saving money.
The Audet family is also hoping to increase their energy production with a pilot project examining the use of algae, which feeds off of compounds in the manure, as an additional fuel source.
Audet presented these initiatives as just a few ways that a dairy farm can be more efficient and sustainable. But she said national pricing is still the root of dairy’s problem.
For her part, DeVos turned the conversation back to a local level. She and her husband, J.D., own a 200-cow farm that they recently converted to organic. While the cost of producing organic milk is higher, the farm now gets a consistent price that is almost double that of conventional milk. In July, said DeVos, her farm was receiving about $25 per hundredweight (a unit of measurement equal to 100 pounds), which is higher than conventional milk prices.
Facing lower demand for organic milk and a request that farms cut back on production, the DeVoses are looking to start a new business, Green Mountain Organic Creamery, which would process milk and sell directly to consumers and through local outlets. DeVos said that they have had a difficult time getting financing.
“Banks don’t want to lend money,” she said. “Instead, we’re gathering investors.”
Between grants and investors, DeVos said they are close to collecting enough money to fund the project and are looking for space close to their farm to build the facility.
DeVos stressed the fact that, although some farmers are finding creative and cost-effective solutions in the diary business, it is unlikely that there is one silver bullet that will help everyone.
“There are different ways,” she said. “There’s not one way.”
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Albee, who spoke next, emphasized that the issues dairy farms face today are not new. In fact, from the beginning of commercial agriculture in this country, dairy farms in the Northeast have been in competition with those in the West, which could always produce milk more cheaply.
Right now, he said, a source of hope for dairy farmers is the renaissance that local food is experiencing. Vermont’s proximity to Boston and New York make its dairy desirable to a large urban population, more so than anything that has to travel thousands of miles to reach consumers’ refrigerators.
“And we have the Vermont name,” Albee said.
He mentioned two companies, Commonwealth Yogurt and cheese seller Lotito Foods, that have recently moved to the state in order to take advantage of the “Made in Vermont” branding, which he said has national recognition.
Albee also described a New York balancing plant that takes liquid milk overages that can’t be sold and makes them into value-added products, including liquor and sports drinks and baby food.
Above all, Albee said, the system of supply and demand creates incentives for overproduction of milk, keeping prices unrealistically low for producers. He said the system needs to be changed in order to keep small Vermont dairy farms healthy and productive.
Ethan Swift and Neil Kamman of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources then spoke about another issue that bedevils the dairy industry: agricultural pollution. Swift and Kamman talked about the Clean and Clear program, which attempts to prevent agricultural runoff from entering area waterways and, ultimately, Lake Champlain. The initiative includes a cost-share program that Kamman said gives interested farmers up to 90 percent of the cost to clean up their land.
“The problems stem from 200 years of working landscapes. We shouldn’t hide from them,” said Kamman.
One participant later asked what the Farmers Watershed Alliance had done to make itself a successful water pollution control program in Grand Isle and Franklin counties. Swift and Kamman said the success was due in part to the fact it got the wider community involved.
The initial questioner said he was cautious about efforts to impose more costs on farmers to solve pollution problems “because dairy farms are in crisis, and any marginal cost seems unsustainable.”
In his brief presentation, First National Bank of Orwell President Mark Young discussed the difficulties of offering loans to farmers, especially in the struggling dairy industry.
He explained that his regulators pressure him to ensure that each loan he gives has adequate collateral and that those who receive the loans file paperwork and payments on time. Because many farmers already have a lot of debt and thus little collateral, he is forced to turn away many dairy farmers who ask for loans, and put pressure on those who have already received a loan.
“Agriculture has outgrown my bank,” he said.
During a question-and-answer session, a good deal of discussion revolved around national pricing, federal legislation and the falling demand for liquid milk.
“How can we help?” Lougee addressed Audet and DeVos on the subject of community input.
DeVos said that her current priority was to find a location for the creamery’s bottling facility.
She added that she looking to scale back her farm by about half, selling off 100 of her milking herd, and that she was looking for buyers.
For her part, Audet discussed the idea of selling her product before it was sent to Cabot.
“We want to diversify into selling our own products. We want to sell locally,” she said. “But I need a website.”
On Thursday, Lougee said the meeting had been a start, and that he hoped to focus the discussion in the coming months, sponsoring forums on specific dairy issues. While questions of national pricing are topics too large for a small community to handle, he said he hoped that coming meetings would bring up and refine local solutions.
“What we have the ability to do is to create a broader community dialog, to add other voices to the conversation and bring other skill sets that the farmers don’t have for themselves,” said Lougee. “If we build a culture of stewardship and entrepreneurship here, we can both educate the group collectively and entice other people to come here with their businesses and ideas.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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