County dairy farmers give Welch the lay of the land

FERRISBURGH — This Tuesday, in a bright, airy room at Ferrisburgh’s Kimball Brook Farm, Congressman Peter Welch perched on a chair in a suit and wool socks and listened to owners Cheryl and J.D. DeVos speak about the dairy processing facility that they plan to open early this summer.
The Vermont Democrat paid the couple a visit as part of his ongoing agricultural listening tour of the state, following his appointment to the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee this January. The tour, he said, is geared toward learning more about innovative farming and agricultural businesses in Vermont.
“I’m finding immense interest in reviving and strengthening Vermont agriculture,” said Welch. “And I’m meeting people who are doing it. That’s what’s exciting about (this tour).”
Welch said his three stops in Addison County — at Kimball Brook Farm, Monument Farms in Weybridge and Vermont Natural Ag Products in Middlebury — are all examples of pioneering efforts in the push to make farming and related businesses viable.
The DeVoses, he said, are prime examples of this push to develop local processing and distribution systems — they currently sell their milk to Horizon Organic, but later this year they plan to begin sending some of their milk to a new processing facility they will be leasing in Hinesburg, distributing it under the name Green Mountain Organic Creamery.
Monument Farms is an example of a company that already has a full system: producing, processing and distributing milk locally. And the Fosters, who run Vermont Natural Ag Products, give new life to the waste from their dairy cows in the form of MooDoo fertilizer.
Welch said that what he learns on this listening tour will provide fuel for the legislation he will work on this session.
“I’m going to focus on the dairy bill,” he said. While a new Farm Bill is not scheduled to come to Congress until 2012, Welch said he and others in the House will work to get a bill to regulate the dairy industry passed this year.
The congressman added that he will continue the work he has been doing on farm-to-table legislation and nutrition, and said he would emphasize the economic and environmental benefits of local food production. He added that his work will be backed by the initiatives being explored on the state level in Vermont, including the efforts of Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“What I’m working on coincides with the Shumlin administration,” Welch said.
In his discussion with the DeVoses, who transitioned their herds to organic beginning in 2005, Welch sought their perspective on the dairy industry as a whole, as well as their personal experiences with the business. He asked them where they thought Kimball Brook Farm would be if they hadn’t made the switch to organic.
“I’d probably be driving a truck again,” said J.D. He still owns his trucking business, which he said will help with distribution once the creamery gets off the ground.
As an organic dairy, the DeVoses are guaranteed a stable price for their milk, in contrast with the fluctuating prices on the conventional dairy market. But even with those prices, the DeVoses said the business has its difficulties — especially in the winter, when the cows cannot be pastured, and instead need extra nutrients from grain and corn.
“Our grain costs are double or more (conventional grain costs),” said J.D. “Our grain price and fuel price are going to be the biggest drivers this season.”
The discussion turned to the difficulty of finding local help willing to work long hours in a dairy barn. Ultimately, said Cheryl, the family hopes to scale down the number of cows from its current 200, reducing the need for help.
“Long term, the general idea is to make this easier to manage,” she said.
But in the meantime, the DeVoses said that federal immigration reform would help many dairy farms in the state with the problems they face, since so many are forced to turn to migrant workers who are not in the country legally.
And the DeVoses said they’ve seen a significant increase in the number of farmers pushing for a federal supply management system. While many farmers fight falling milk prices by producing more milk, sending milk prices plummeting, supporters of the legislation hope to institute market controls that would address oversupply.
The DeVoses said that many more farmers have come around to the idea of supply management.
“A lot of my neighbors a couple of years ago said, ‘Supply management? That’s socialism,’” said J.D. “But after years of $13 (per hundredweight) milk, they’ve changed their minds.”
And though the organic milk market has long provided a stable price, many farmers are transitioning to organic now, and organic milk processors are taking on more producers. The DeVoses said they are worried that an oversupply of milk on the organic market may drive prices down.
But, said J.D., there have been other, unexpected benefits of transitioning the herd to organic and cutting back milk production from between 75 and 80 gallons per cow per day to between 55 and 60.
Originally, they were worried about not being able to use antibiotics to treat cows with mastitis. But, they said, that has not been a problem.
“It’s the dirty little secret of organic,” said J.D. “There are fewer health issues.”
And the DeVoses said they are finding that each cow stays in production longer when not overstressed, so they end up selling a number of their young cows each year.
But Cheryl said Green Mountain Organic Creamery is the next step in the progression of the dairy business.
“We really think the progression from organic to selling your own milk is what the state needs,” she said.
Welch agreed.
“The interest is there,” he said.
And the DeVoses said they are considering diversifying what they produce on the farm, possibly growing vegetables as well in the coming years.
What they want to see in the state are resources to make it easier for farmers to market, process and distribute their goods.
“Putting the milk in the bottle is not that different (from what we’re already doing),” said J.D. “It’s marketing and distribution that’s not there yet.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]

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