Editorial: A contrarian’s stand on the dairy crisis

In a commentary in today’s paper, Leicester resident and former organic dairy farmer James Maroney offers a harsh — and lengthy — critique of the conventional dairy industry in Vermont. Maroney has long been an outspoken critic of conventional dairy and has his share of critics who vehemently reject his arguments — as one might expect in a state in which dairy farming has long dominated the agriculture scene.
What we find interesting in Maroney’s perspective, which starts on Page 5A, is just how long the state has defended its political stance on policies meant to “save” the family dairy farm, as well as policies meant to reduce farm run-off into the state’s lakes and waterways. Maroney lists the specific bills and measures the state has taken over the past 50 years to accomplish those said objectives.
His legitimate criticism is that the policies have not met their goals. Rather, as he says, they have failed consistently at a cost of about $2 billion over that period — not a small amount for a small state to boost one commercial sector of its economy.
What’s not said in his commentary is the legislation and money expended has undoubtedly slowed the decline and helped some farmers transition to other farming endeavors that have broadened and stabilized Vermont’s economy. In short, to say the $2 billion spent went up in smoke with nothing gained is unfair, even though those policies have fallen far short of keeping dairy farm numbers from dwindling and reducing lake pollution.
Maroney’s solution, however, is equally vexing. While advocating for a wholesale transition to organic dairy practices, he also admits that such practices won’t fit every farm, nor would there be a viable market if every conventional dairy operation were to move to it. He recognizes that many small, conventional dairy farms would need to be culled — which, obviously, does not meet the immediate goal of helping small Vermont dairy farms stay in business. It might be a viable long-term strategy in terms of more stable milk prices and less phosphorus pollution, but it’s hardly a policy Vermont politicians would be eager to embrace.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Maroney’s perspective, the subject is a difficult political issue that needs more thorough vetting from the public at large as to whether the policies adopted are meaningful and the money allocated produces a good return on that investment. What we should not do is continue to pass measures couched with lofty platitudes and false promises to save the family farm only to see more farms fail year-by-year.
Angelo Lynn

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