Vermont withdraws from Dairies of Distinction program

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont for many years has promoted the healthy image of its dairy farms by participating in the regional Dairies of Distinction Program. Agency of Agriculture, Food and Marketing officials have said that attractive dairies give the consumer greater confidence in the wholesomeness of milk, stimulate milk sales, and encourage public support for the dairy industry.
But early this year state Agency of Agriculture sent out letters to dairy farmers saying that it was withdrawing from the program.
“After many years of discussion with the dairy industry, farmers and other dairy related organizations (Farm Bureau, Vermont Dairy Industry Association, Green Mountain Dairy Farmers and Farm to Plate), the Agency of Agriculture will no longer be managing the Dairy of Distinction program,” Vermont Agency of Agriculture official Diane Bothfeld told the Independent in an email.
Bothfeld, who is deputy secretary for dairy policy, added that the agency would welcome any organization that is interested in managing Vermont’s Dairies of Distinction membership, but said that the organizations the agency has approached have decided not to take over the program. She said there is about $3,000 in state funding available for that purpose.
She explained that the agency is withdrawing from the program because it commends farms based only on aesthetic criteria — meaning that a farm could look pretty, but also could be in violation of state agricultural statutes, particularly regarding pollution.
“The fact that a farm could garner a Dairy of Distinction sign but then be in violation of other agency regulations made this program a poor fit,” Bothfeld said.
The program, formally known as the Northeast Dairy Farm Beautification Program, was created in 1983 and commemorated the prettiest and best-kept dairies in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont, which joined the program in 2002.
Awards were not bestowed based on milk production, but rather aesthetics. An explanation on the program’s website gives a glimpse into what judges look for.
“Awards will be based upon neatness, good maintenance, and other factors, which can be controlled by the dairy producer,” the organization notes, adding that attractive scenery surrounding a farm won’t be part of the judging process.
Judges travel to farms to make observations in May, and winners are announced in late summer, often at the Champlain Valley Exposition during the first week of September. Farms that are chosen get to proudly display a Dairy of Distinction sign until the next year’s honorees are announced. Last year 27 dairy farms in Addison County, and 140 statewide, were named Dairies of Distinction.
Rail View Farm in New Haven was one of the class of 2014. Farmer Philip Livingston said he was surprised to receive a letter early this year notifying him that Vermont was withdrawing from the Dairies of Distinction program.
He said he had just installed the sign the dairy received for winning last year. He said his family felt honored to be recognized for keeping a neat farming operation. Just weeks after the 2014 winners were announced, a fire destroyed a barn at the farm.
“We were just able to get one, and it’s too bad the program is going to be done away with,” Livingston said, adding that the letter went as far as to tell farmers to take down their signs.
But Livingston said he’s in no rush to remove his farm’s sign.
“There is some pride in having it,” he said.
Doug DiMento, a spokesman for Agri-Mark, which owns the dairy producer Cabot, said the company is disappointed that Vermont will no longer participate in the Dairies of Distinction.
“These farmers work hard to provide a good image for dairy farming, and it’s too bad they’re not going to continue to be recognized,” DiMento said, adding that many farmers who sell milk to Cabot are past winners.
DiMento said that Cabot has a milk quality recognition program for its farmers, and said that the company may also look to recognize farms based on similar criteria as the Dairies of Distinction.
Bothfeld said the Agency of Agriculture remains committed to promoting the state’s dairy industry. She said the agency participates in sponsorships and also provides dairy products at various events.
She added that the agency will debut a “breakfast on the farm” series this summer.
But while Vermont may no longer be participating in the Dairies of Distinction program, dairy in the Green Mountain State remains strong.
According to a state report issued in December 2014, dairy accounts for 2 percent of Vermont’s gross domestic product, which topped $11 billion in 2012. In total, Vermont’s 868 dairies accounted for $540 million in economic output that year.
Milk production makes up about 80 percent of that agriculture production in the state, and uses that same proportion of all the available farmland. Vermont’s dairies employ between 6,000 and 7,000 people, and pay 3 percent of salaries paid to Vermonters, according to the report.
Since almost 90 percent of Vermont’s dairy products are sold in other states and countries, the industry brings about $1 billion in out-of-state money into Vermont, the report states.

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