Letter urges Scott to take the state toward organic dairy
VERMONT — A coalition that includes dairy farmers, academics, environmentalists and business owners is encouraging Gov.-elect Phil Scott to have Vermont develop its own dairy policy. In a letter, the group said it believes the federal policy hurts Vermont farmers.
A spokesman for Scott said the governor-elect has concerns about what he believes the group actually wants. The spokesman said Scott has no alternative proposal to help Vermont’s dairy farmers but will look to his agriculture secretary.
The group’s members say it costs Vermont dairy farmers more to produce their milk than they receive from selling it and that swift action is needed if dairy farming is to remain viable in Vermont.
“There’s money being made in the dairy industry. Ben & Jerry’s grossed more than $600 million last year, and Agri-Mark grossed around $1 billion last year,” said Michael Colby, a co-founder of Regeneration Vermont, a group among those signing the letter. “There’s money in dairy, it’s just not getting to the dairy farmers.”
At a time when Vermont’s dairy farmers are already struggling, they’re being blamed for around half the pollution that perennially leads to toxin-releasing algae in Lake Champlain — a problem that carries an estimated $2.5 billion price tag, Colby said. As a result, Vermont dairy farmers are feeling pressured from all sides, he said.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the kind of pain going on with dairy farm families today. They’re working so hard and paying to farm — not getting paid, but paying,” Colby said. “It’s outrageous.”
Non-organic dairy farmers (known in industry parlance as “conventional”) have little choice in how much they’re paid for their milk, Colby said, in part due to U.S. dairy policy and in part due to predatory practices by corporate dairy processors.
But farmers have an opportunity to capitalize on the Vermont brand and secure a measure of freedom and stability, the letter states. The letter’s authors describe a system where Vermont dairy farmers might produce milk under better conditions — better for the environment, the animals involved and the workers — than what’s standard in conventional dairy farming.
The letter calls for the state to “support and facilitate the necessary statewide transition to regenerative and organic dairy production,” although several signers said that wouldn’t necessarily involve every farm practicing fully organic methods. Rather, they say, they seek to model a program after what’s been done with organic products, where some set of higher standards differentiates Vermont’s milk and commands a premium.
“The bigger, broader question in all of this is: How do we have a healthy working landscape that provides a reasonable income?” said Philip Ackerman-Leist, a Green Mountain College sustainable agriculture and food systems professor who signed the letter.
“I think (the letter is) asking the governor to help at least set the table for the possibility of more autonomy and economic opportunities for Vermont farmers,” Ackerman-Leist said.
That’s unlikely to involve switching all dairy farmers in the state to producing organic milk, and such a move probably isn’t desirable, said Roger Allbee, former secretary agriculture, food and markets. He signed on to the letter.
Converting a conventional dairy to organic requires two to three years and a significant outlay of money, Allbee said, and although the state is in a position to offer financial assistance for the switch, Vermont’s dairies aren’t likely to switch en masse any time soon.
A statewide conversion to organic dairy is also likely to flood the organic dairy market and harm Vermont’s existing organic dairy farmers, say critics of such a move, including Scott.
But most people who buy dairy products aren’t necessarily seeking organic milk, say farmers who signed the letter.
“I don’t think everybody wants to or needs to follow the (organic) certification rules,” said Jack Lazor, owner of Butterworks Farm in Westfield. “But we use the Vermont brand to tell people how pure we are in Vermont … and part of that letter is to live by our image.”
There’s a balance to be struck, Lazor said, because widespread changes to Vermont’s dairy industry will impose new costs, and those costs will challenge farmers’ and others’ ability to sell their product.
“When you ask brands like Cabot and Ben & Jerry’s … to buy into a new regenerative agriculture system, they’re also competing with other brands who are getting raw materials from farmers who aren’t taking care of the Earth so much,” Lazor said.
But dairy products are probably too cheap, Lazor said, and they remain so through the use of farming methods that hurt the environment, workers, animals and dairy farmers themselves.
Customers want to buy agricultural products with the knowledge they’re not harming the world and will pay a premium, which Vermont farmers should take advantage of, said farmer and Lt. Gov.-elect David Zuckerman.
“I think it’d be a fantastic scenario if our dairy industry and state government could come together to promote this vision, but it does require there to be a true difference in our milk, for consumers to be willing to spend a little extra,” Zuckerman said. “I appreciate that that difference doesn’t have to be full-on certified organic, but consumers are interested in environmental impact, animal welfare, working conditions and so forth.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that doing nothing, and relying on federal milk policy, will lead to the demise of our dairy industry,” he said.
The Vermont brand is already established, in the minds of Northeasterners at least, as a brand aligned with many positive values including those Zuckerman described, Allbee said, and formal research of the subject in the past has supported that conclusion.
The switch to some form of higher-grade dairy in Vermont appears to be among the few likely solutions to dairy farmers’ economic plight, said Will Allen, a farmer and a founder of the group Regeneration Vermont. It would carry the added benefit of alleviating many of the practices Vermonters find objectionable.
“We feel like there’s a lot of desire, among a real diverse group of people, who want to help figure out how to change our dairy system into something we can be proud of,” Allen said.
It’s appropriate that such a dairy industry might mean costlier milk for consumers, said clean-water advocate James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International.
“Cheap cheese means dirty water,” Ehlers said.
“The consumer needs to play a part,” he said. “That’s the piece that’s missing. Everybody’s talking about tax money, but the basis of a clean economy is people paying the true cost of what they’re consuming. We’re not going to fix the problem otherwise.”
Those true costs include the hundreds of millions of dollars Vermonters, including farmers, are expected to shoulder to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain.
“Right now, Vermont taxpayers are subsidizing (Ben & Jerry’s corporate parent) Unilever and (Cabot Creamery corporate parent) Agri-Mark’s corporate profits,” Ehlers said. “I don’t know how anyone who believes in any sort of market enterprise can believe that’s appropriate.”
Organic farming isn’t the only means to that end, but it’s in the right direction, Ehlers said.
“For me, what organic represents is more sustainable farm agriculture,” he said. “Agriculture today is not sustainable, and all you need to do (to find proof) is look at the quality of our public waters, the financial subsidies involved (in farming), and the state of farm labor.”
The governor-elect has received the letter and believes it calls for a statewide transition to organic dairy farming, said his spokesman, Ethan Latour. Scott hasn’t been in touch with the letter’s authors, Latour said.
Scott doesn’t support such a switch, Latour said.
“We see some common ground in wanting a vibrant dairy sector in Vermont, but as far as a recommendation for the state to transition to organic, we have our questions about that,” Latour said.
Scott’s characterization of the letter is shared by Doug Dimento, spokesman for Cabot Creamery’s corporate parent, Agri-Mark.
Dimento said the letter is really calling for a statewide switch to organic dairy production.
“That’s totally unrealistic and totally unfeasible,” he said. “Right now all Vermont farmers have the option to go organic. But farmers don’t want to go organic. If they wanted to do it, they’d have done it.”
Ben & Jerry’s, on the other hand, is on board entirely with what the letter suggests, said the company’s global director of social mission, Rob Michalak. Leaders at the company have already met with representatives from Regeneration Vermont, Michalak said.
Zuckerman, for his part, said he’s “more than ready” to put together a task force to look into how the state might best assist its dairy farmers. Differentiating the state’s dairy from other states’ is a great place to start, he said.