Shumlin discusses future of dairy in county
ADDISON — One Tuesday late last month, the Addison firehouse was full of dairy farmers — most from Addison County, and some from farther afield — having a long talk with Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin about the future of farming.
“We needed to see what was coming down the pipe,” said Phil Livingston, a New Haven dairy farmer and co-president of the Addison County Young Farmers group, which organized the event.
He, along with his co-presidents John Chamberlain and Derrick Dykstra, hold monthly events for the group, covering a range of topics related to the dairy business.
This meeting was the first political event the group has sponsored in its six years, and it drew more than their usual 30 attendees. The room was full of at least 50 members of the struggling Vermont dairy business, of varying ages, all eager to ask their future governor how he would work to help the industry.
Shumlin said that not all of the work could be done on at the state level. He said he will be a strong supporter of supply management legislation, which would control the current over-production of milk in order to lower the amount of milk on the market and bring higher prices to producers.
And he said the standard organic and conventional labels on milk just aren’t giving the consumer a clear enough of a picture of where that milk is coming from.
“It seems to me there should be a third category — small farm milk,” said Shumlin. “If (consumers) knew that their cow came from a farm where it actually gets out of the barn, you’d find a higher premium for that.”
Addison dairy farmer Rob Hunt said that the “grass-fed” image wouldn’t be accurate for many of the farms that hold up the Vermont dairy industry.
“I like your idea, mainly because my cows graze,” he said. “But most of the cows in the state of Vermont don’t.”
Hunt said that grain and fertilizer would be far more expensive in Addison County were it not for the larger producers that create a high local demand for those commodities.
Hunt instead floated his own idea: an in-state dairy bottling company. With the Vermont name, milk could sell at a higher price, he said, but that milk would need a processing facility right in the state to qualify for the Vermont Seal of Quality program. And it could work, he said, because it’s being done with poultry right in the county, with Stonewood Farms in Orwell and Misty Knoll Farms in New Haven. Their success, he said, isn’t because they’re pricing competitively with larger producers like Tyson and Perdue.
“Those turkeys go as far as California — it costs more to ship the turkey than the turkey costs,” he said. “But the reason people buy them is because they’re from Vermont.”
The governor-elect did not shy away from blunt responses to the farmers’ questions. Asked if he would consider financial help for dairy farmers from the state, he said that it was just not possible, considering the state’s financial situation.
“We want to be the state that can do everything for everyone, but we just can’t afford it,” said Shumlin.
What the state can do, he said, is to partner with industry, helping agricultural enterprises build a local processing infrastructure and find a profitable direction.
“I think Vermont has a really bright agricultural future, but not if the state isn’t willing to partner with you to make the infrastructure investments that will make it possible for us to get the value-added products from our goods,” said Shumlin.
This includes facilities like slaughterhouses and storage and processing units, so that farmers do not have to send their goods out of state to have them processed.
Andrea Ochs, an Orwell orchardist who serves as the young farmer chair for the Vermont Farm Bureau, cited the work on food storage and processing that Vermont Refrigerated Storage in Shoreham is doing, which Shumlin said is the type of enterprise he hopes to support.
And Shumlin emphasized that although he would support the artisan cheese and smaller endeavors, he would also support the industry that keeps the land open in the state of Vermont: the dairy industry and the fields of forage crops for the cows.
“We’ve got to stop this debate,” said Shumlin. “When we talk about how we can make agriculture strong in Vermont, we tend to think that when we talk about any idea, we’re suggesting that someone else’s idea won’t work. Let’s make sure we have a state where they both work.
Rebecca Howrigan, one of a number of farmers who had come down from Franklin County for the meeting, said that that approach had its limits.
“The reason that the state got into a lot of the situation that it’s in, where it can’t afford to pay for programs that we have, is that nobody was willing to say, ‘no, that’s not a good idea, we can’t do that,’” she said. “You need to be able to step up and say that when that’s what needs to be said.”
Shumlin said his background in small business management would prevent that from happening.
“The government doesn’t create jobs. Individual businesses do, and individual farms do,” he said. “
Shumlin also said he would work on encouraging the New York and Quebec governments to adopt pollution control regulations similar to those that Vermont farmers in the Lake Champlain watershed must abide by, so that the work wasn’t falling solely onto Vermont farmers.
“I think we should be asking the question, how can we be working together to clean up the lake as fast as we can,” said Shumlin.
And in response to a question on energy, he said that if the Legislature had voted to keep Vermont Yankee running, electricity rates would still have gone up with a new contract in 2012. He said that Entergy, the company that owns the aging nuclear plant, would only have agreed to supply 11 percent of Vermont’s energy needs, rather than 30 percent, and that, as governor, he would make sure to lay out a clear energy plan.
“Power prices are going up,” he said. And it’s not a problem that’s unique to Vermont.
“We’re now, for the first time in history, burning more oil than we’re producing,” he said.
Dykstra, a New Haven dairy farmer, said that though many of the meeting’s attendees had approached the meeting not knowing what they were going to find, he came away with a sense that he knew what to expect from the governor’s upcoming term, as well as a feeling of hope for the prospects of the farming business.
“I think it went well,” said Dykstra. “We do have a bright future coming at us.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].