Challenges still loom for Vermont dairy farmers

SHELDON — The annual meeting of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance (VDPA), held recently at The Abbey in Sheldon, contained some bright news in what has otherwise been a bleak year for dairy farmers, including some steps toward supply management in the Northeast.
VDPA was formed to represent the dairy industry in Montpelier, explained executive director and Franklin County farmer Amanda St. Pierre.
Despite the group’s focus on Vermont issues, the national scene for dairy, marred by four straight years of milk prices below farmers’ cost of production, inevitably came up.
Asked to speak about what was happening nationally, Harold Howrigan Jr., president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, said the National Milk Producers Federation voted at its annual meeting not to pursue a supply management plan in Congress, and instead focus on securing more money from the USDA under the tariff relief announced earlier this year.
That relief went primarily to soybean and hog farmers, with dairy farmers expected to receive just pennies per hundredweight of milk production.
The dairy industry lost multiple key markets when the Trump Administration imposed tariffs on major U.S. trading partners including China, Mexico and Canada and those countries retaliated with tariffs on agriculture. “The markets that the government took away from dairy farmers” had taken years to build, said Howrigan.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has told farmers U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has the tools and money to aid dairy farmers but it will likely take a bipartisan push from Congress to get his attention, Howrigan reported.
“We need to pressure National Milk,” said Ralph McNall, the former president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, adding he was “disappointed National Milk can’t see the light.”
Jack Parent, the St. Albans Co-op’s vice president, reported that Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) Northeast Area Council is discussing supply management and has voted “for the first time… to establish a base on its farmers.”
Establishing a base level of production for each farmer is the first step toward trying to limit the milk supply in the Northeast. Other area councils that are part of DFA have begun managing the supply of milk produced by their members, most notably California. Other cooperatives have also started to manage supply, or are considering doing so.
Those steps toward supply management are what may bring about a national supply management system, in the view of VDPA board chair Bill Rowell of Sheldon. As cooperatives around the country create a patchwork programs to reduce supply, Congress may ultimately be forced to create a national program, he suggested.
One of the dangers of reducing supply unilaterally is that excess milk from other parts of the country may then come to the Northeast, noted Rowell.
The responsibility for addressing the twinned problems of milk oversupply and low milk prices ultimately lies with Congress, Rowell told the assembled farmers. After all, it was Congress that, in 1937, created the federal milk marketing system under which dairy farms sell their milk.
“We work under federal regulation,” said Rowell. As for farmers who don’t want a supply management program because they believe it would interfere with a free market, Rowell said, “You identify a free market. I don’t see it.”
Under the current system, farmers rely heavily on export markets to absorb excess supply and are “headed for trouble when supply exceeds demand by 1 percent,” said Rowell.
In the Northeast, farmers dumped 170 million pounds of milk in 2017. In the first seven months of 2018, they dumped 145 million pounds. That dumping, noted Rowell, is a waste of farm assets.    
“Our marketplace is oversupplied with milk but we’re still operating under the same rules,” said Rowell. “We need to have our system modified so it represents us today.”
VDPA BOARD CHAIR Bill Rowell said the ultimate means for enforcing a national dairy supply management system may have to come from Congress.
Messenger photo/Michelle Monroe
On the state front, VDPA has hired a lobbyist to represent them in interactions with the Legislature and state government as well as an attorney from Wisconsin with expertise in dairy regulation.
In the past, there were numerous dairy farmers in the Vermont General Assembly, but that’s no longer the case, said St. Pierre. “It’s been many years since the industry was in the statehouse,” she said.
“We continue to be a $2.2 billion industry for Vermont,” said St. Pierre. She also advocated collaborating with other industries that need farmers’ support such as banking and tourism. We need to “show how big and strong we really are,” she told farmers.
VDPA has had some success in the state Legislature already, averting a citizen right of action law by arguing there are “rules already written that protect citizens,” said St. Pierre. Working with experts from outside Vermont means “we can show how in other states this really went awry,” she added.
The final tile drainage rules were also a good compromise, one “we can live with,” said St. Pierre.
To continue to have influence in the statehouse, VDPA will need to get more members there, both farmers and others from related fields such as feed and equipment dealers, said St. Pierre.
One issue the Legislature has repeatedly kicked down the road is finding a permanent source of funding for the on the groundwork that needs to happen across Vermont to reduce runoff into Lake Champlain and other water bodies. Current discussions have focused on a per parcel fee.
St. Pierre asked farmers to think about that. “We want to hear from you if you have other suggestions,” she said.
A possible carbon tax is also on VDPA’s radar.
St. Pierre brought up the question of how to get more cold milk and whole milk in schools.
One farmer raised questions about farm-to-school efforts that have focused on produce but haven’t included milk, suggesting the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets could do more to promote milk in schools.
St. Pierre agreed. “We’re a viable industry and we do a lot for this state. At least include us in your video with the vegetables,” she said.
Several suggestions were made including reaching out to teachers, the Vermont Principals’ Association and the Vermont School Boards Association, as well as the Green Mountain Dairy Promotion Board.

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