Top 10 stories from 2018: Pressure builds at dairy farms
Local dairy farmers suffered another tough year, and in spite of state and federal efforts, the outlook remains poor.
In a blow to the local dairy industry, one that was as much symbolic as economic, Nordic Farms, whose iconic red-roofed barn stands at a high-profile location on Route 7 in Charlotte, auctioned off its cows and equipment in March, another victim of unfavorable economics.
Nordic was one of more than 65 dairy farms that went out of business in Vermont this year, according to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — a trend that seemed guaranteed to continue as long as milk prices remained depressed.
Over the last four years, farm gate prices have gone from a high in September 2014 of around $24 per 100 pounds (about 11 gallons) to $19.70 in February 2017 to $15.90 in February 2018. Despite a slight uptick toward the end of 2018 ($17.40 as of Oct. 31) prices remained well below the break-even point for many Vermont farmers.
In the spring, industry officials hoped emergency changes to the federally managed Margin Protection Program, a kind of insurance program for dairy farmers, would provide much needed relief. Among those changes:
• Reduced premiums.
• Expanded coverage.
• Fairer and more frequent margin calculations.
• Waiver of the annual $100 administrative fee for qualifying farmers.
• Retroactive benefits, so that farmers would know to some extent what they were getting into.
But by autumn the outlook had not improved.
After proposing emergency federal legislation in October, Sen. Sanders invited Vermont’s dairy farmers to attend a series of “listening sessions,” where they would have the opportunity to communicate their concerns. At the first of these sessions, in Middlebury, turnout was lower than hoped for and the mood was grim. Dairy farmers were looking for long-term solutions, not handouts or Band-Aids, they said.
But long-term solutions were likely to run into a number of roadblocks:
• Partisan divides in the U.S. Congress, which among other things had stalled the current farm bill.
• Competition between regions and their respective sizes (Vermont with a few more than 700 dairy farms vs. Minnesota with more than 3,000).
• Consumer suspicion. 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, dairy farmers would be seen as “taking food out of the mouths of babies because you’re getting too much for your milk,” said Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Diane Bothfeld.
In December, the farm bill finally un-stalled, an $867 billion package that was described by a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee as “mostly status quo.”
It was not the bill Sen. Sanders would have written, he said, but he voted for it, not least because it contained “a number of important victories for Vermonters,” including strengthening a risk-management tool for dairy farmers and taking significant steps toward ending the national prohibition on hemp production.
At the same time, as dairy continued to struggle in 2018, there were glimmers of hope for those who wanted to keep Vermont’s landscape open and working.
Nordic Farms, it turns out, will remain a working farm. In December, fast-rising Peterson Quality Malts, which had outgrown its Monkton digs, purchased the 583-acre dairy for $2.4 million and plans to plant all 350 of its farmable acres with barley and other grains. The company sells malted barley for use in craft beer brewing.
Farther south, on a New Haven test plot, flowers that produce an unlikely spice — saffron — grew in the shade of a solar array. Researchers at the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development at UVM estimated that an acre of Vermont soil could eventually generate more than $100,000 worth of saffron, which is currently the most expensive spice in the world.
And last but not least, hemp made a growing presence in the county. In April, Victory Hemp bought the Full Sun Company production facility on Exchange Street in Middlebury and began carrying out plans to produce hemp seed oil and hemp seed powder at the plant — some of it from locally grown hemp. By October, Addison County boasted 42 registered hemp growers cultivating a total of 423 acres — more than any other county in the state, numbers that could be reasonably expected to rise as the recently passed farm bill helps to de-stigmatize that ancient crop.
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