Dairy farmers: Low milk prices are wearing us down
MIDDLEBURY — At an Oct. 12 meeting organized by the office of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to solicit input from dairy farmers about milk prices and the viability of their industry, those farmers found themselves in the minority.
“The thing that kind of upset me today is: You sent your message out to the farmers and there’s hardly any farmers here,” said Gerard Sabourin of Sabourin Dairy in Shoreham. “I’ve seen it for years,” he continued. “Informational meetings with our co-op and stuff — they’re poorly attended.”
When the discussion turned to educating the public to the plight of the dairy industry, Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm and Audet’s Cow Power in Bridport pointed to a sense of “hopelessness” among her peers.
“I think that’s exactly why there aren’t more farmers here,” she said. “We’ve been through this before. I’ve been through this before and I’m not fighting this battle again.”
Held at the Middlebury Parks & Recreation Center, the “listening session” was the first in a series of meetings scheduled around the state to provide a forum for dairy farmers to weigh in on what policies and programs are needed to improve milk prices and farm income.
In Vermont, the price paid per hundred pounds of milk (about 11 gallons) has stood below $20 for most of the last three years. In August 2018 the price was $16.70 — well below the break-even point for many farms. Vermont has lost more than 65 dairy farms this year, according to a press release issued by Sanders’s office.
State and national legislators have proposed (and sometimes orchestrated) a few short-term fixes:
• This spring, the federal Margin Protection Program for Dairy, insurance that protects dairy farmers when the difference between the wholesale price of milk and the price of feed falls below a certain dollar amount, was expanded and made retroactive, guaranteeing payments for small- to medium-size operations.
• The state has set aside funds this year to help Vermont dairy farmers pay their premiums for the Margin Protection Program. Checks averaging $800 should go out to farmers in the next couple of weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts announced at the meeting.
• On Oct. 11, the day before the Middlebury meeting, Sen. Sanders introduced Congressional legislation that would provide emergency payments and give priority to farmers that live in states where the cost of milk production is higher than the national average, and to farmers with smaller operations. According to Sanders representative Erica Campbell, the legislation, if passed, would provide a total of $550 million nationwide — a minimum of $10,000 for every dairy farmer.
• Sanders also sent a letter to U.S Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urging his agency to use its authority to purchase dairy products (which would reduce supply and raise prices) and distribute it to food shelters nationally.
‘NOTHING’S GOING TO CHANGE’
In spite of these and other efforts, Lisa Kaiman of Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester had been hesitant to attend Friday’s listening session.
“When (Sanders staffer Erica Campbell) asked me to come, I thought, ‘Am I going to come and say the same thing I’ve been saying for 20 years again and waste my frickin’ time, when I could be home doing what I need to do?’ I think farmers are like, ‘It doesn’t matter what we do, it doesn’t matter who we tell, it doesn’t matter how often we talk. Nothing’s going to change.’ And I think that’s why farmers just don’t bother coming to stuff like this.”
Like many at the meeting, Bill Rowell of Green Mountain Dairy Farm in Sheldon, pinned long-term solutions on the ability to manage supply and demand.
ERICA CAMPBELL, AN Ag Staffer with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office, writes down ideas generated at a luncheon in Middlebury last Friday to discuss milk prices.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“We’ve got milk coming out our ears,” Rowell said. “The European Union has milk coming out of their ears — and they’re dumping it on us, too. The rural community isn’t looking for Band-Aids — fix the problem.”
Rowell had recently returned from a trip to the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, he said. The mood there was bleak.
“Everybody was trying to have a good time,” he said. “It was a good show. Nice animals. Nice people. A lot of equipment. But they were preoccupied. They knew that there was trouble back home, and they probably shouldn’t be there. I felt the same, myself. And if you saw somebody standing off to the side, you could read their face. They knew they had to face an obstacle when they went home.”
Of the 36 in attendance at last Friday’s meeting, roughly a third identified themselves as dairy farmers. One third was comprised of state officials and representatives from Vermont’s U.S congressional delegation, and the rest were industry officials. More farmers had been expected, said Campbell, but had canceled at the last minute.
Sen. Sanders did not attend the listening session, though he did offer brief remarks through a cellphone, which Campbell held up in the middle of the room so everyone could hear.
Long-term solutions to the dairy crisis are likely run into a number of roadblocks:
• Partisan divides in the U.S. Congress, which among other things have stalled the current farm bill (the last one expired Sept. 30).
• Competition between regions and their respective sizes (Vermont with a few more than 700 dairy farms vs. Minnesota with 92,000).
• Consumer suspicion. Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Diane Bothfeld urged those gathered to “be prepared.” Though a number of studies have shown there’s virtually no connection between the price paid to farmers for their milk and the supermarket price per gallon, “You’re going to be (seen as) taking food out of the mouths of babies because you’re getting too much for your milk,” she said.
Many at the meeting worried about the next generation of dairy farmers.
“I’ve got four sons at home,” said Loren Wood of Woodnotch Farms in Shoreham. “I just wanna make sure whatever we do short-term here doesn’t affect a young guy who wants to get started, because there’s plenty of those.”
Jenny Nelson of Home Acres Farm in Ryegate agreed.
“If we want to see young farmers take over, we’ve got to do something, and we’ve got to do it now,” she said. “There’s no more waiting around.”
Catherine Durand, an economist with dairy co-op Agri-Mark, was more cautious.
“Protect and bring on the next generation of farmers is critical because otherwise, where are we going to be?” she said. “But also if we’re in a situation where there’s just way too much milk, we don’t want to be incentivizing people to come in and just flood the market, so there needs to be some level of control, in my mind.”
State and regional industry officials have met and developed a number of dairy pricing proposals, but without a commitment at the national level, they’re unlikely to work for a state like Vermont, which produces a tiny fraction of the nation’s milk.
“It’s got to be a national program,” said Sabourin. “We talk about (reducing Vermont production by) 2 percent. Maybe the upper Midwest needs to drop 6 percent. Vermont could fall off the face of the map and Wisconsin would fill our markets with milk.”
The next listening session sponsored by Sanders’s office will be held on Nov. 16 in St. Albans.
In the meantime, for many like Lisa Kaiman, the struggle continues:
“I’m just trying to make it through the winter.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]