Editorial: Bigger farms are vital, too

Talk about farming in Vermont these days and all the buzz is about Farm-to-Plate legislation, buying local, organic if possible, and the niche market potential of value added products. It’s enough to make large-scale dairy farmers stand up and scream, “Hey, what about me!”
And that’s just what 30-plus, area dairy farmers did last Wednesday when they took a bus trip to Montpelier to talk about their concerns. They met with the new Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, visited with the Agriculture Committee heads of both houses, and talked to local legislators Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, and Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham. The message was cordial, but to the point.
“I support (small farms), but not at the disadvantage of conventional agriculture,” said trip organizer and long-time Farm Bureau leader Jim Bushey, who now works with Middlebury’s Bourdeau Brothers selling goods to farmers. “We’re making sure that the legislators don’t forget where the largest dollars in agriculture come from.”
Not that most of our state’s leaders would forget, as the numbers are overwhelming. According to 2007 statistics, more than 74 percent of the total market value of all Vermont farm products came from dairy production, pulling in a total of $494 million dollars.
But, as Bushey knows, it’s not just about the total dollars. He’s well aware of the steep decline in the number of dairy farms in Vermont, plunging from 4,000 just a few years ago to barely over 1,000 today. He’s aware that big dairy farmers are concerned about stiffer regulations over farm run-off that’s polluting Vermont’s rivers and lakes; he knows the controversy between organic and non-organic seeds and the problems of cross-pollination in organic fields. It’s all part of the scene.
But this is Vermont, a state that loves its dairy farmers, the open land they keep in production and the bucolic life-style that we claim as our own. It’s OK to admit problems, discuss how to solve them, and keep the industry in the public eye for the enormous benefits we gain.
And it’s OK to share the spotlight with others.
Hyper-local food is a growing market among the younger generation — and it’s sweeping across the nation. Vermont has been in the forefront of the movement, which offers opportunity in terms of creating value-added production on a niche-market scale — adding farm jobs and keeping the land in production.
But that’s not an effort that takes away from dairy farmers. Even comparing Farm-to-Plate initiatives to the dairy industry has helped educate Vermonters on how big dairy production is. But perhaps we could do more.
Marie Audet, a Bridport dairy farmer and a member of the Farm-to-Plate committee, hit the nail on the head when she said on that trip to Montpelier (see story on Page 1): “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. It’s all about education, about getting it out there.”
So, let’s do that. It’s cost-free to change the tenor of the conversation; to brag about the quality of Vermont’s dairy products; to extol the virtues of large-scale dairy farms. Perhaps we could stage a Dairy Education Day. Get the media to focus on the topic; create an hour-long classroom discussion for students; hold a parade… whatever works.
And know this: Educating the public about the benefits dairy farming contributes is more than just a pat on the back; it’s an opportunity to understand the plights of that group of farmers who contribute so much to the aesthetic that is Vermont. All of us need to better understand their circumstances if we are to help them thrive.

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